Monday, August 31, 2009

True Reform Requires Real Sacrifice

Today I read a thought-provoking piece that inspired me deeply. The writer of The Hyphen Blog makes a compelling case that I won't completely summarize here in the hopes that interested readers will take the time to read it in full. The main idea of this extended treatise on activism and the media's frequently insufficient means of showcasing it to meant, in part, to note that real reform takes more than minimal effort on our part and ought not to include the, pardon the phrase, self-congratulatory circle-jerk that far too often follows it. In particular, the post criticizes The New York Times Magazine for having, at best, a naive understanding of what truly constitutes solidarity with the less fortunate and the oppressed. The writer of The Hyphen Blog piece, as I interpret it, appreciates the effort made, but recognizes that that the conclusions drawn and overall structure falls far short of really elucidating the problem.

Going about our daily business, we are far too often proof that we want reform on our own terms alone. Social justice has been, perhaps inevitably, institutionalized and commodified in ways that go beyond Whole Foods or drive-through liberalism. As The Hyphen Blog point out, this mode of thinking has made its way into the media, too. We are often so blind to the big picture that we simply don't see our own limitations or even observe the need to continue the struggle for equality on all levels. Reform is not a destination. Reform is a journey. The most successful movements have an announced intent, but those who take up the banner realize full well that the Promised Land is a mutually accepted state of mind, not a fixed point.

To quote from the blog I've cited above,

To put it simply, solidarity is about more than simply joining forces for the common good. Rather, it's about forging coalitions based on mutual interests, trust, and -- most importantly -- the equitable distribution of power and resources amongst stakeholders and supporters. (In the jargon of the unenlightened: stakeholders = people who need help, while supporters = people with money to help them.) That last point is where most well-intentioned, would-be do-gooders flub.

In the still-festering health care debate, I and others have called for an individual-by-individual approach to shape the debate and push back against Republican scare tactics and misinformation. In my opinion, it's important for people to feel empowered and not strait-jacketed by the petty squabbling of our elected officials. Disgust at the sorry state of the political process and a cynical, defeatist perspective, after all, is what greatly contributed to eight sorry years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and neo-con insanity. Still, one must take into account the whole, not merely selected fragments of a huge jigsaw puzzle.

The Phil Ochs song "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm a Liberal" comes to mind when I think about this kind of conditional, limited activism.

I vote for the Democratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I'll send all the money you ask for
But don't ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I'm not out to castigate do-gooders. If only making change was as simple as a burning, sincere desire to attain it. We need only look at our own daily routines to witness the times we fall short of our ambitions. For instance, after having waited in traffic, which only compounds my fatigue from having worked a full day, I can opt for convenience and purchase fast food for my dinner. But with that choice comes with the understanding that, if I make this a habit, I will probably gain weight if I don't take the time to exercise it off. Instead I can purchase healthier ingredients to make a meal ahead of time and spend an extra hour or so putting it together after I've arrived home. With time, the eventual long-term cost will supersede the short-term gain. I might feel more of a pinch in my pocketbook today and feel less of a pinch in my wallet for the moment, but eventually there will come a point where I save more in the long term.

To cite another example, I acknowledge that while the car I own that isn't fuel-efficient, it is completely paid for, too. And I also recognize that eventually filling up twice as much as I would have if I bought a less gas-guzzling model has already cost me more in the end. Sometimes, particularly in these economic times, we can't avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul, but more often that we might wish to take into account, we can and choose not to do so.

Returning again to The Hyphen Blog:

After all, it's pretty easy to build a relationship based on mutual interests and trust when everyone at the table has big hearts and great intentions. It's quite another thing to build a relationship based on equitably distributed power when half of the table has all the money (and the clout that comes with it) while the other half of the table has none (but desperately needs to get it).

I know I am safely wager that we're all painfully aware of this glaring inequality. Everyone I talk to online and in real life mentions some variation of this same completely justified gripe. It's tough to dare to sit at the table when you know you'd have to buy a seat just to be heard. It's even tougher to choke down when you realize that you have to be part of the club and know someone well-connected to even know where table is. Still, this shouldn't dissuade us from seeking and combining our voices. I firmly believe that the most successful strategy for strangling one's opposition is to spread the seeds of cynicism among the general population, which as they sprout are then adopted as a kind of fundamentalist wisdom. Cynicism has an easy answer for every question, and its net result is willful paralysis.

The aforementioned article also addresses the difference between charity and solidarity. Charity is paternalism defined. It is, as the entry notes, "egoistic benevolence". Americans do this better than anyone else, and in fairness, so would anyone who lives in a country of excess. When we imply that we know best without understand subtleties like context and nuance, then we contribute to our own take on the White Man's Burden, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Solidarity is not concerned with self or with looking pious. While charity is Pharisaical, solidarity is Righteous. Solidarity is doing the right thing for the right reason, while charity is doing the right thing for the wrong reason and sometimes even doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason. If this is not our aim, we ought to examine what makes us settle for the little we know we can get instead of aiming for the lot we could attain. Though it might take daring to be self-aware, which is not an easy undertaking for many people, our own salvation, in all of its shades, is within ourselves. I fully believe what when we either consciously or unconsciously proscribe limits upon ourselves, then we create the bonds that hold us down. Then, as before, ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Now Mary

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Quote of the Week

“Integrity can be neither lost nor concealed nor faked nor quenched nor artificially come by nor outlived, nor, I believe, in the long run, denied”- Eudora Welty

Reversing Course from a Culture of Lies

I read an article in Newsweek a few days ago that talks about lying and the role that lying plays particularly as regards success in our society. As I doubt will come as much of shock to those of you reading this, those who lie frequently and lie well are often much more socially and economically successful than those who do not. As a Quaker, this story deeply moved me, especially since we are called to adhere to a Testimony of Integrity whereby lying, being deceitful, and keeping dishonest practices are a violation of our teachings. Though we often are reluctant to place too much emphasis words like "sin", skirting the truth and in so doing resorting to unfair advantage might as well be one. The problem is that lying is so omnipresent in the world around us and so unthinkingly incorporated into our daily lives that it's a tremendous challenge for each of us.

We don't swear oaths because oaths are designed to reinforce and provide a consequence (such a perjury, in a court of law) for people who would otherwise be inclined to prevaricate. Since we're supposed to tell the truth no matter what, we see oaths as unnecessary. Yet, I will openly admit that I lie from time to time myself, and more often than I'd like to contemplate.

We are a culture of liars, to put it bluntly, with deceit so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we hardly even notice we're engaging in it. Spam e-mail, deceptive advertising, the everyday pleasantries we don't really mean—"It's so great to meet you!" "I love that dress"—have, as Feldman puts it, become "an omnipresent white noise we've learned to tune out."

The reason that our name got co-opted by companies selling food and motor oil, to state only the most recognizable examples, is that Quakers were known to be trustworthy and known to charge a fair price. Assigning the Quaker name to any product was meant to make the consumer feel as though they could trust that the product they were buying was presented completely as advertised and was affordably priced. The tactic must have worked well, because both of those companies are still in business. Even now we get annoyed when yet another enterprising businessperson believes that anything with our name attached can be reliably marketed and sold at a profit.

As Americans, we like to think we value the truth. Time and time again, public-opinion polls show that honesty is among the top five characteristics we want in a leader, friend, or lover; the world is full of woeful stories about the tragic consequences of betrayal. At the same time, deception is all around us. We are lied to by government officials and public figures to a disturbing degree; many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. We deceive our children, only to be deceived by them in return. And the average person, says psychologist Robert Feldman, the author of a new book on lying, tells at least three lies in the first 10 minutes of a conversation.

So it would seem that we're all two-faced to some degree. One can lament this or chalk it up to human nature. I lie, I ask for forgiveness, I resolve to do better next time. So long as I am aware that I frequently fall short of the lofty ideals I champion, I never worry that I am becoming the very thing I say I don't want to be. We're flawed, we're human, and we're culpable towards hypocrisy.

A Leonard Cohen song, "Anthem", comes to mind, partially because because it refers to "the light", which I interpret to mean the Inward Light of God.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

I'm also reminded of a poem a fellow Friend frequently invokes when matters such as these come up at meeting. The author, W.H. Auden, titled the work "As I Walked Out One Evening" and what begins as a relatively straightforward narrative turns towards the philosophical by the end. Auden notes,

O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'

The prophet Mohammad was asked by a follower, "Who should I consider to be my neighbor?" Mohammad responded, "Count five houses in every direction from you." The context must also be noted, since in Mohammad's time the planet was much more sparsely populated and the physical distance between each house was much greater than it is today.

This mirrors what Jesus had said earlier,

Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Perhaps we ought to examine the reason why we feel compelled to lie in the first place. Is it taking the path of least resistance? Is it out of a desire to further ourselves at someone else's expense? Is it out of a desire to seem more important or more powerful than we actually are? We always have worth before God and if we could translate the value that God sees in us to the value we have within ourselves, then who knows what we could accomplish for good. When so many of our problems are caused because we undercut ourselves as we are and believe we ought to be something else, perhaps the first lie we need to cease altogether is the lie we tell ourselves.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Message Discipline is Easier Said than Done

For the past couple of months we have all been engaged in a contentious, confusing, and highly scattered debate on the merits of health care reform, a public option, and the contentious and strident arguments of our opponents. Some have blamed the Obama Administration for poor message discipline when it comes to setting out one set line on health care reform, but a quick glance at where we as progressives stand as a codified, coherent whole would quickly provide at least some answer for that. We on the left were frequently fragmented and rudderless well before health care.

We came together to elect a President, but much of our unity there was a result of collective revulsion of what had come before and also a shared belief in the unspecific, barest outlines of what constituted necessary change and reform. The details and the methodology to put these proposals into force are the means upon which we differ and sometimes violently disagree with one another. This is where we eat our own with a cold precision and effectiveness that no Republican ever could hope to attain.

That four separate plans for health care reform are competing with one another in various levels and departments of our Federal Government comes as not much surprise to me. Each coalition and each group that splinters from the whole clings to its own particular argument, forgetting often in the process that when it comes down to legislative success, often a middle ground is more important than minutia. We need to understand that coming to consensus means that we aren't going to get everything we want and sometimes our pet projects and pet ambitions might not be understood properly by all, but that sometimes the minutia isn't nearly as important as the substance. If we want to remember Ted Kennedy as some are arguing and we want to invoke his memory, we would do well to recognize that his mastery in getting legislation passed was due to promoting trust, good will, and esprit du corps among his fellow Senator, and even those in that other party which shall remain nameless.

President Obama was partially elected by preaching a gospel of bipartisanship. Yet, as the same predictable fault lines materialized out of thin air and the polarization that many found so distasteful manifested itself yet again, the bitter rancor created ripples and waves between Republicans and Democrats; it also kicked up papered-over divisions that had long existed within ourselves. In my opinion, I think our own devotion to individual thought works against us. We've all been educated, indoctrinated, and versed in the same terms, the same concepts, and the same strategies so as a result we often have an unfortunate tendency to over-complicate matters. What often annoys me about liberal discourse is that we keep unintentionally fragmenting ourselves when finding a middle ground and coming to a basic understanding would be a tactic better served. If we call everything into question and break ourselves down into small and smaller identity groups, making sure as the good liberals we are that each group should have an equal voice in the debate, then we do ourselves a great disservice. Namely, because our opposition doesn't feel a similar compulsion. Conservative thought often draws firm lines in the sand. Things either are or they are not and this makes propagating a unified voice a far easier task.

I can't help but note that sometimes people who have never been highly educated take a common sense, matter-of-fact approach to issues like health care reform, even the most complex ones that might not take into account all the particulars, but quite notably don't end up with counter-productive bickering and demoralizing in-fighting, either. I also think at times we would be wise to ask ourselves what drives us to care so passionately about the cause we support. Is it an altruistic desire to improve all of humanity? Is it sparked by a negative experience we have had with classism, sexism, racism, patriarchy, the sins of capitalism, and those other ills we all seek to eradicate? Well and good if my revulsion at the status quo spurs me to action, but do we also acknowledge that at times our own bitterness and our own internal agenda can overshadow the consensus process? This is what gives rise to that nauseating tendency for people to believe that all criticism directed towards their cause must be designed solely for malicious ends and as a result, it must be coldly destroyed. This is also when we as liberals fragment, squabble amongst ourselves, and aimlessly drift without a single purpose that might unify us for a greater good.

To make a comparison, today I came across a fascinating article on Feministing. Activists Rachel Griffin and Josh Phillips have joined forces to fight for sexual assault education and prevention. Both bring a different, but related perspective to the topic. While each of them brings a perspective to the subject that is in large part influenced by their gender, they also manage to find much to agree upon and skillfully layer their responses accordingly to build a greater understanding. Combined, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Their observations regarding the current state of Feminism as a movement are not only spot-on, they are also deeply applicable to the whole of Progressivism.

Griffin points out that

...I don't think that there's one kind of feminism that can account for all those differences, but I do think that the feminist community needs to understand that our needs and values and beliefs are just important as the other person's needs and values and beliefs. So if I'm trying to have a conversation with a heterosexual white female feminist who has a disability, we need to come together in a humanizing moment and understand that her needs are just as important as my needs as a heterosexual able-bodied woman of color who identifies as a feminist. (italics mine)

We have to find a way for those needs to simultaneously co-exist and be met in different ways. And not everybody's needs are going to be met quickly, and not everybody's needs are going to be met fully, but I do truly believe that Audre Lorde was dead-on brilliant when she said that there is no hierarchy of oppression. We are so caught up in a social justice equivalent of a patriarchal pissing contest that it's ridiculous. And until we stop struggling amongst ourselves, we can't form a coalition across difference.

Phillips adds,

I will qualify my remarks, which you're never supposed to do. But I recognize that I'm in no position as a male to be telling females on the front lines of feminism what's wrong with the organizing of feminism. It is more my responsibility to support feminists in the direction that they want to go.

However, what I would say is challenging from an outside viewpoint is that I can't find the focus of the movement any more. And I've studied the history of feminism and I've seen clear lines of political intention, clear lines and focus, and in the last ten or fifteen years, I don't always know what is expected of male counterparts and allies in feminism. What's expected of us isn't as clear as it used to be. So if we could redirect, refocus and reorganize some of the overarching goals, that would really help some of us on the outside in supporting the cause.
(italics again mine)

We have to put our own house in order before we can hope to pass health care reform or any contentious reform measure that has a lengthy history of creating substantial opposition. What is our focus? How can we strive to find commonality in a wealth of often discordant voices? If we change the very building blocks and the cherished beliefs upon which we have expended so much energy, will that be enough? If not us, who? If not now, when?

Saturday Video

Friday, August 28, 2009

An Inglorious Anniversary: Hurricane Katrina

Even with the advent of twenty-four hour cable news channels, some worthy stories get submerged underneath the deluge of echo chamber and profit motive. Many big stories are fighting for control of the news cycle at the moment. The death and burial of Ted Kennedy and the omnipresent bickering over health care reform are to name the two heavyweights of the moment. While this is unavoidable because our attention spans can only contemplate a certain amount of information at a time, in a more ordinary year, we'd be gearing up to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which arrives on our shores tomorrow. At minimum, I hope the blogs perform an essential service to us all that the media simply is too swamped with other concerns to properly bring to light.

Growing up the WASPy, predominately Calvinist environment that characterizes most of the South, I always found New Orleans a fascinating and puzzling anomaly that openly and unashamedly flaunted its opposition to the conventions of ninety percent of the rest of the region. Roman Catholic when its surrounding states were proudly Protestant, unrestrained, hedonistic and Pagan instead of buttoned-up and proper, it stuck out like the biggest sore thumb you'd ever hope to know. In large part, this is due to how it was settled over time. As a port city, New Orleans had been privy to a tremendous diversity of ethnic, cultural, religious, and class diversity that made Dixie seem bland. A strong French influence, married to French settlers' proclivity to intermarry with Native Americans, combined with open interaction between Africans and African-Americans due New Orleans' vital role in the slave trade gave it its unique flavor. The city changed hands between competing European imperial powers several times and had at times been ruled variously by Spain and France, then became part of the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.

Many of us raised in not quite so libertine surroundings frequently ran off to New Orleans to explore a primal side of us frowned upon by our parents, our teachers, and our culture. To this day, people I know can instantly bond by telling New Orleans stories, and they invariably revolve around the same kind of youthful indiscretions that we all had to some degree: a night of drinking too much and vomiting in the street, a one-night-stand with someone barely remembered, and a memory of Mardi Gras' excess of publicly displayed mammary gland. The guilt and shame, not to mention the hangover the next day was a fairly potent cocktail of self-loathing, but in time that memory faded and we always returned to New Orleans to start the process anew.

The Pat Robersons of the world found it easy to chalk Katrina's arrival as some sort of justified punishment wrought by an angry, vengeful God upon the Sodom and Gomorrah of our times. Not only is that harsh and self-righteous, it's also an unfair characterization. But, hyperbole aside, New Orleans always had a dirty, sleazy underbelly to it that one either tip-toed past, feeling somehow morally complicit by daring to skirt past it, or justified within oneself for some silent, unexpressed reason. A police force well-documented as one of the most brutal, most corrupt, and easiest to bribe was one of these dubious distinctions. A high crime and murder rate, due in no small part to the intersection of drugs, prostitution, and petty theft is another. The physical dirtiness of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street mirrored the dirtiness of the illegal activities lurking somewhere in the shadows. Most port cities, I am aware, have a reputation as not being the cleanest, but New Orleans' variety of dirty was its own brand, one that smelt like the combination of decaying fish, grime, and the sickly-sweet aroma of animal droppings.

The poverty and stratification I saw when Katrina ripped off a scab few cared to attend to was no surprise to me. The impact it made on the American psyche might have made people recognize that good intentions, fairy dust, and a wave of the magic wand don't magically end poverty or discrimination based on income disparity. I suppose I could draw race into the equation, but to me that's far too easy and far too facile an angle to pursue. Racism is rarely all about black versus white. Far more often race is only one level and one particular lens that is part of other interwoven factors that include class, education, money, power, and control. Invoking race conflict makes for good theater and it makes it easy for the media to report, but if we seriously wanted to fix the problems of Katrina, we'd need to take a much broader interpretation.

My rationale for writing this post is a fairly simple one. When people take hold of tragedies like Katrina and use them for their own ends without really understanding the full context, then I get supremely annoyed. When people oversimplify complexities to score political points, then we're all dumber for the act. When people take hold of "the South" and use it to project and air their version of everything backwards and wrong with our culture, then I get similarly frustrated. It would be tempting to pounce on the same infuriating soundbytes like "heckuva job, Brownie" or "George Bush doesn't care about black people." To be sure, some pundits, bloggers, columnists, talking heads, and experts will do so from now and for years to come. Yet, as long as we don't take into account the larger picture, then the plethora of lessons learned from Katrina will be forever whittled down and unnecessarily pruned to a relatively straightforward story of how Americans were outraged at an incompetent, unpopular President, and they were reminded that racism had not yet consigned to the dustbin of history. The lessons of Katrina speak to each of us, regardless of political ideology or conviction. These stories go beyond easy human interest or convenient talking point. Though I didn't live there and though I wasn't an evacuee, New Orleans forms my story and my identity, too. Katrina is your story, too.

This v-blog talks a bit more about how Katrina's impact goes beyond the run-of-the-mill outrage.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The American Ruse: Often You Don't Get What You Paid For

A recent study by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni challenges the preconceptions of many Americans regarding the degree of instructional and curriculum disparities between lower-cost public colleges and universities and higher-cost private colleges and universities. In this survey, a controversial notion is advanced that insists that the quality of coursework for each individual student is of much better quality in public, state school higher education then in elite private higher education.

As the survey states,

Even as our students need broad-based skills and knowledge to succeed in the global marketplace, our colleges and universities are failing to deliver. Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses. Not surprisingly, students are graduating with great gaps in their knowledge—and employers are noticing.

I attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham (commonly known as UAB) for my undergraduate education, which though it is not listed directly on the study, is a part of the same university system as the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which scored a B in this survey. Since I had friends and two parents graduate from UA and since I talked to them extensively about their coursework requirements in the time that they were enrolled, I'd be surprised if my alma mater would score any lower than a B it was similarly scrutinized as part of the study.

Even if the conclusions drawn by this study cannot be easily refutable, there is still an ingrained cultural assumption that paying more for the college education of your child provides a corresponding increase in quality of instruction, which isn't often the case. If anything, the reverse is true. As a society, we might be wise to understand whether we honestly believe that education opens doors, or whether wealth, privilege, and name recognition are all that it takes to be successful. It would seem to me that if the latter is true, then we really don't believe in the American Dream; instead, we might be true believers in the American Ruse.

We all know that money can open doors in and of itself and a name on a high-end diploma holds more weight than that same name on a more ordinary diploma. This study also strongly implies is that a person who attends an Ivy League school may be far less qualified to hold a job than a person who attended a state school and was forced to take a much more rigorous slate of courses. I always joke that when I was in undergraduate, we were being trained to actually have to work for a living.

"The top liberal arts colleges have allowed their general education curricula to deteriorate," the study said. "These schools are in effect leaving it up to students to figure out what they will need -- and families are paying dearly for the privilege of a do-it-yourself education."

To echo Walter E. Williams' commentary on this same subject,

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book. Employers complain that graduates of colleges lack the writing and analytical skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Even though we know well that facts are stubborn things, peoples' ingrained assumptions, perspectives, and opinions might be even more stubborn. Yale, Cal-Berkley, Cornell, and Vanderbilt got an F in this study. Harvard got a D. Most of these are elite private institutions. I don't want to come across as harshly condemnatory. Good intentions are often to blame. Still, I think we also know upon what the road to hell is paved. Many parents want to give their children the best education possible and not only that, they want to give them the best advantages possible to secure a good job and to make a career for themselves. I find no fault whatsoever with that motive. That is how it should be. Moreover, since many people and many employers are still supremely impressed, if not awed, by those who hold degrees from elite institutions, giving children a leg up on the competition is an understandable intention.

Notwithstanding, this study aims to deflate and challenge such long-held beliefs as little more than myth, but unless people honestly recognize that students like me, who came from well-rounded public universities were required to branch out and take courses from a variety of disciplines, thus making us a much better fit for the exceptionally limited number of jobs now available, we'll always be second-rate. If there is any such thing are fairness in our society, it's time to ask ourselves some hard questions. Here are some more statistics from the study that I find quite interesting.

Northwestern University students can fulfill their math requirement by taking classes in music theory.

Cornell University students can cover their literature requirement by taking "International Film of the 1970s."

Wesleyan University students can fulfill their science requirement by taking "Physics for Future Presidents."

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book. Employers complain that graduates of colleges lack the writing and analytical skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

A 2006 survey conducted by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 24 percent of employers thought graduates of four-year colleges were “excellently prepared” for entry-level positions. College seniors perennially fail tests of their civic and historical knowledge.

To be fair, this phenomenon isn't strictly relegated to higher education. Citing another personal example, I am a proud Quaker. Over the years, Quaker educators established private schools around the country that teach K-12 students. The schools established by my faith group often have a stellar academic reputation, a small pupil-to-teacher ratio, a variety of extracurricular activities offered, an in-depth focus on social justice rarely provided by a public school, and an strong emphasis placed on alternative forms of discipline for students who break the rules. They are, it must be added, also prohibitively expensive. One year alone costs as much as $15,000 per child, and can even cost more than that, so for those who have the money in their bank accounts or might need to consider that third mortgage are certainly welcome to spend it the way they best see fit. And even though I am understandably proud of the schools that bear our name (and proud that our President and First Lady decided to enroll their children in a Quaker school), I also am aware that some have criticized these institutions for being too lax with discipline and too light with actual instruction.

To return to higher education in particular, my father tells a story that, when he was a young man, back in the early seventies, a co-worker of his who held a degree from an elite institute of higher learning mentioned that it had actually been tougher to get accepted to Princeton than to pass his classes. Once you were in, the friend asserted, the school would literally not let one fail, primarily because bad grades brought down its statistics and might discourage those wishing to spend tremendous sums of money to enroll their children, and also because children of privilege tend to have parents of privilege who never fail to interject themselves into the situation when their sons and daughters might be in danger of flunking out.

The questions we might wish to ask ourselves are whether we truly wish to practice what we preach regarding equality, diversity, parity, and democracy. I think if you'd survey most Americans, they would agree wholeheartedly that we ought to be governed on the basis of a meritocracy, whereby the most qualified rose to positions of power and that the most qualified took the top rungs by virtue of their competence and suitability for the role. Instead, nepotism, favoritism, and plutocracy run amok are what we really have underneath the myth. I find it nothing less than ironic that we rebelled successfully from Great Britain and in so doing justified our cause by stating that aristocracy and a complete lack of social mobility were deplorable things that we would never repeat in our own country. Though examples do exist of people who personify the American Dream, they are few and far between in the final analysis. Often it does take money to make money. As I conclude, I posit a question: how many of our Presidents have not been millionaires?

Men of good fortune
often cause empires to fall
While men of poor beginnings
often can't do anything at all

The rich son waits for his father to die
the poor just drink and cry
And me, I just don't care at all

Men of good fortune
very often can't do a thing
While men of poor beginnings
often can do anything

At heart they try to act like a man
handle things the best way they can
They have no rich daddy to fall back on

Men of good fortune
often cause empires to fall
While men of poor beginnings
often can't do anything at all

It takes money to make money they say
look at the Fords, but didn't they start that way
Anyway, it makes no difference to me

Men of good fortune
often wish that they could die
While men of poor beginnings
want what they have and to get it they'll die

All those great things that life has to give
they wanna have money and live
But me, I just don't care at all

Men of good fortune
men of poor beginnings
Men of good fortune
men of poor beginnings
Men of good fortune
men of poor beginnings
Men of good fortune
men of poor beginnings

- Lou Reed

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy's Legacy, Appropriately Presented in Shades of Grey

As is true with many Americans, I grew up in a household where Ted Kennedy was a profanity, not a inspirational invocation. My father, like most conservatives I know, pointed to Chappaquiddick as indisputable evidence that Ted currently needed to be in jail, not in the United States Senate. Though I was raised by parents who were openly and unashamedly hostile to the very name Kennedy and anything attached to it, as an adult I came to reject their sentiments and in so doing make my own ideological way. I briefly call attention to my life history to explain as best I can why much of the adulation and waxing nostalgic flowing from the mouths of liberals from a different generation than my own (as well as media figures similarly inclined) rings utterly hollow for me. I envision many of them waiting for the end of the day whereby they can have a drink or two and, after reaching an optimum level of intoxication, share stories about Uncle Teddy.

I flatter myself into thinking I might possess a kind of objectivity that older liberals now wistfully spinning yarns about the good old days aren't capable of entertaining. Ted Kennedy's life, as I have observed it, was a mass of contradictions: a personal life full of tragedy and character failings, but a public life overflowing with legislative successes. And for those of a different sensibility, those who believe that sowing bad behavior, selfishness, and immorality into the universe produces an ample and justly deserved harvest of sorrow, misery, and pain, they need only look into the life of the man as proof. While I personally am not that callous nor am I that sanctimonious, one needs only take into consideration the attitudes of many on the right at this moment as proof of that. Let it be known that I make my points below not to denigrate Senator Kennedy's legacy, but to make note of the fact that many of our stars and inspirational leaders also led highly imperfect lives themselves.

A great number of influential people have courted high levels of controversy in their relatively short period of time here on Earth. The poet, critic, and intellectual known as Ezra Pound contributed mightily to modernist theory and a new direction in poetry, but also favored Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's brand of fascism. Pound gave a series of radio broadcasts in Italy brilliantly defending an ideology based on anti-Semitism and advancing the policies of a reactionary military dictatorship. Italy was, after all, an enemy of the Allied powers and in league with Hitler's Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Following the War, Pound was brought to justice back in the United States and spent twelve years in an asylum, having been ruled by a federal grand jury not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time, many believed that Pound was completely sane and did not show the clear-cut signs of deranged psychosis that would have been the determining factor to establish conclusively that he was truly out of touch with reality. And even so, this treasonous act was not enough to keep Pound's works out of literature textbooks or to keep his ideas from being freely discussed by scholars into the current day.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., justifiably championed as a highly inspirational torchbearer in the Civil Rights Movement, did, much like Kennedy, resort to academic dishonesty on at least one occasion. King plagiarized certain sources in his doctoral dissertation, though they were not discovered until years later. And, again like Kennedy, King was nagged by persistent rumors that he was a womanizer and adulterer. While these accusations of both mens' infidelity have never been confirmed in any wholesale fashion, they nevertheless have been at least suggested by those in their inner circle. In this day, we are quick to judge the indiscreet discretion of John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and John Ensign but one wonders if the actions of Kennedy and King would have come to light in a different, pre-Watergate, pre-investigative journalist era. If one operates on the premise that where there's smoke, there's fire, who knows what might have made its way onto a blog back then.

Those who forgive Ted Kennedy's numerous failings attempt to weigh the good he accomplished alongside the bad judgments and poor decisions made in his personal life that effectively doomed his chances at the Presidency or at a higher public profile than that of Senator. We often assume that those who sinned once or sinned frequently in a younger, more immature period in their life have neither the inclination nor the ability to change their conduct for the better. If we applied that same standard to each of us individually, then I daresay most of us would be on trial in the court of popular opinion for something. I certainly would include myself in that scenario. As it stands, I happen to believe that Kennedy was his own worst enemy and that the person he injured most was himself. That he was able to accomplish great good as a counter-weight to his human side speaks volumes to the fact that no human life is without merit. His tortured, tangled personal life might also be a potent lesson to teach us that those who make a conscious effort to lead a moral life never need to worry about having something to hide nor have to take great pains to always look over their shoulder.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Scattered Truth: Or, a Heap of Broken Images

Mark W. Adams over at Dispassionate Liberal recently wrote a very interesting and timely post that I'd like to freely reference and respond to at some length. This diary will not do his original work adequate justice so I highly recommend that those of you who have the time to consider reading his post in totality--taking care to access the numerous links to other websites that brilliantly emphasize his overall point. When I read blogs like Adams' I'm reminded how crucial a free exchange of ideas is to a democratic society and how it both enriches us and leads to a much better understanding of the pertinent matters we grapple with on a daily basis. And, I as almost needn't mention, I'd never get this caliber of analysis through any conventional media source.

Aiming to discover the often vexing and frequently secretive behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of the mainstream media is no easy feat. One would think that an industry which preaches transparency and honesty in that which it covers would take care to respond in kind within itself, but that often is not the case. The best those of us on the outside can do with a limited amount of first hand information is make educated guesses and use deductive reasoning to reconstruct what must be transpiring out of our sight. Media outlets rarely publicize their own internal struggles and indeed I didn't understand just how financially strapped the newspaper, television affiliates, and magazines in my hometown were until someone started a blog partially to showcase the pay cuts, layoffs, and reductions in benefits that have befallen the industry. Media hypocrisy is one thing, a synopsis of an industry in free-fall is another, but a much more compelling topic for discussion is that of the numerous flaws which stem from a poor presentation of the facts, which collectively one refers to these days as "news".

In his piece, Adams references Neil Gabler's recent opinion column in the Los Angeles Times which I will enclose a generous excerpt.

To look at this in a larger context, journalists would no doubt say that it isn't really their job to ferret out the "truth." It is their job to report "facts." If Palin says that Obama intends to euthanize her child, they report it. If Limbaugh says that Obama's healthcare plan smacks of Nazism, they report it. And if riled citizens begin shouting down their representatives, they report it, and report it, and report it. The more noise and the bigger the controversy, the greater the coverage. This creates a situation in which not only is the truth subordinate to lies, but one in which shameless lies are actually privileged over reasoned debate.

Don't think the militants don't know this and take full advantage of it. They know that the media, especially the so-called liberal mainstream media -- which are hardly liberal if assessed honestly -- refrain from attempting to referee arguments for fear that they will be accused by the right of taking sides. So rather than be battered, the media -- and I am talking about the respectable media, not the carnival barkers on cable -- increasingly strive for the simplest sort of balance rather than real objectivity. They marshal facts, but they don't seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and "end of life" counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.

Yesterday's Hardball featured some degree of push back to these sorts of stinging rebukes. Chris Matthews (or whomever wrote the teleprompter copy) responded that the program's frequent reporting and coverage of the far-right wingnuts at Town Hall Forums and the Republican politicians who enable them was, to him, fully acceptable. According to Matthews, his program's justification for giving these people the satisfaction and gratification of media exposure was to prevent potential violence from swelling out of control. In so doing, he was making sure that no mentally disturbed individual felt motivated and wholly justified to use brute force to make his/her point known. By implication, he invoked the specter of 1968, a year in which many felt the entire country was coming apart at the seams. Thankfully, 2009 is not 1968 redux. It's not even close. Matthews' rationalization sounds noble enough, but my opinion continues to be that nothing creates a suitable climate for an unhinged individual then to have his or her point of view validated by media coverage. Even this day and age, some people still believe that whatever is printed in a newspaper must certainly be true and moreover that any opinion beamed out over the airwaves is no different must be the truth. Think about how many truly worthy causes advanced by completely healthy, 100% sane individuals do not get covered.

Adams then references Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, a man who has taken the media to the woodshed on numerous occasions before to highlight its severe failings.

Rosen talked about the difference between explanation leading to information and reporting raw information without explanation, leaving it to the reader to supply their own analysis, form their own opinion and divine for themselves the "truth" -- which more often than not allows the news consumer to cherry-pick that set of raw data they like and reinforces their strenuously held preconceptions and avoid critical thinking.

One of the most telling characteristics between amateurism and professionalism is that the former tends to, as Adams puts it, spew out disconnected blobs of information and the latter takes care to collect facts into a coherent whole and in so doing tell the truth as they saw it. While I admit that the medium of the internet encourages information vomiting rather than a well-researched, thoughtful, and carefully crafted presentation of the facts, it can be done, and many of the better blogs do an admirable job of it. Slovenly behavior in any occupation is never acceptable. I can't help but shake my head to note that with the rise of New Media we are dealing with the Age of the Amateur, for better or for worse. I would expect this with a uninformed bloggers who are more concerned with documenting their sex lives, daily drama, or responding to celebrity gossip, but when I note how closely the once-proud media resembles a personal platform for mindless self-gratification, I can't help but shake my head in disgust.

Next, Adams notes that print media cannot compete with the instant accessibility of the internet, but takes care to point out how it can thrive in spite of cyberspace.

Print can't compete with [internet based journalism], but its failure to sharpen it's most potent weapon against the digital encroachment -- truth-telling as opposed to information spewing -- is ignored at it's peril. Magazine formats seem better suited to this than daily papers, but unless reporters and editors are willing to admit they judge (and they do no matter how hard they avoid such appearances) and explain, they are doomed until they teach their customers how the facts they report fit into the larger scheme of things complete with reporting on what are fair yet contrary positions; yet unafraid of exposing mere obstructionists uninterested in solving problems while shouting down all who threaten the status quo that pays their rent.

This is something rarely seen in print, but more common there than cable news. However online in depth presentation of the overall narrative is much, much more common. Advertisers come and go with business cycles, but if print is to survive competition from the web just as it survived radio and TV, it's got to offer more than reporting that there is a controversy, noting which side is making sense and sincere in their arguments, and illuminating which side is using the media to blow smoke.

The old saying, "the problem with Communism is the Communists" seems applicable to this discussion, though I would, of course, modify it slightly to say that the problem with Journalism is the Journalists. Whether they will take constructive (not destructive) criticism like this from the twin forces of the substantive blogosphere and academia is entirely their decision. When I read over Mark W. Adams' post, I realize just how many of us are sounding the alarm in a million eloquent shades of the same very basic argument. When an entire profession's vulnerabilities are this plain to see, then one would think needed change would be on its way. The mainstream media can continue to exercise an obsessive degree of secrecy, or it can concede that it needs to set out on a painful, but nonetheless cathartic program of soul-searching.

As Professor Rosen points out in his own post,

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

Or, to put it another way, the media would be well-advised to treat us like adults, not like children. One of the reasons I felt so strongly inspired by President Obama's speech on race during the primary campaign is that he talked to us, the American people, as though we were grown-ups and that through rational discourse we could form our own enlightened conclusions for ourselves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did much the same thing in his series of radio broadcast fireside chats during the Depression. The MSM, however, has never quite grasped this concept. While they were quick to praise Obama's speech when it was delivered, few of them broke down the speech point by point. They were more inclined to say, "Listen to it yourself. It's on YouTube after all." Allow me to make a quick observation, if I may. If you ever want to be covered by the media, the WORST thing to say to a reporter is, "Well, I'm too busy to give you all the facts, but here, read my blog. All the answers you want are there." Whomever you're speaking to won't have the time nor will they have the inclination to do that much legwork. You'll be lucky if you get two sentences or ten seconds airtime, if that. Those who make it easy for the media and play by its rules almost always end up incorporated into a story or a piece.

Returning to Obama's speech and the coverage that followed it, if the media had adopted a different pose, then many viewers very well may have had their long-held assumptions challenged by the awesome power of pure logic and the magic that comes from understanding the bigger picture. Maybe that's incompatible with the current model, but I know also that models can be changed. I know some would argue that the American people would balk if all conventional news sources were made to be more like NPR or PBS. This is true, I suppose, but in my feeble power as minor league blogger, I challenge the industry to at least try intelligent discourse on for a while and if the demographics and ratings share comes out much lower than before, I suppose you can blame me for the suggestion. Aiming high certainly can't be any worse a strategy then what is already in place. As for aiming low, bad models and poor strategy aside, I'm not sure to what degree industry carelessness created by discouraged and resentful workers fearing the termination of their jobs is a variable here. If I knew my own job and my own head could be on the chopping block at any moment I suppose I'd probably not be particularly motivated to do good work, either.

And to conclude, I will refer back to Adams' post once more. Sloppy journalism or at least stymied journalism does no one any favors. Voices are always few and far between when a country is about to go to war and no one knows that better than a pacifist and Quaker like me. If the media truly is the gatekeeper extraordinaire and the blogsophere is the rotten vegetable throwing rabble, then where were the dissenting voices in the slow, inevitable build up to a destructive, costly, wasteful war?

For a recent example, it's fine that smug pundits now talk about revelations that the head of Homeland Security himself wondered about and eventually left the government because the color-coded terror alert system had been compromised by electoral politics, saying that everyone knew or at least suspected the Bush administration was abusing the system. But where were the intrepid journalists at the time, when it mattered, when we were being callously manipulated just as we had been manipulated by a lazy media leading up to the war in Iraq. It it was common knowledge, why did they let them get away with it?

To mirror Adams, this goes well beyond "news". This is where the romantic ideal of journalism and the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ethos is supposed to step in to speak truth to power. In this instance, like so many others, the media dropped the ball, and through its inaction it produced an epic fail.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Oversaturated with the Never-ending Health Care Debate

For the past several weeks, the unceasingly and frequently frustrating back and forth that has characterized proposed health care reform legislation has sucked the air out of the rest of the news and the energy out of people like me. I am aware of the importance of the debate and have spoken up as passionately as I could to advance the cause. I've listened to the opinion of the person on the street, the pundit on the airwaves, and the academic in a think tank and have tried to give each of them equal weight when it came to forming my own conclusions. I've even visited a Town Hall Forum set up by my Republican congressman. While I disagreed strongly with most people in attendance and took extreme liberty with the vast amount of misinformation displayed as fact by my Representative, Spencer Bachus, I genuinely sought to understand the motives, prejudices, and their inherent bias of the other side. Friends, I now admit to being thoroughly exhausted with the entire process.

When I'm out and about running errands or doing all of the boring chores that one must do when one becomes an adult, I can't help but notice something very strange afoot. Something else is present in the place of what would ordinarily exist this time of year. College football, for those of you unfamiliar with the South, is a force whose combined impact in the lives of nearly every resident make it a very real way of life. Kickoff of the first week's worth of games is less than two weeks away, but the excitement that would normally be so omnipresent, celebratory, and expectant as to resemble the arrival of a saint is now nowhere to be found. Football plays such a huge role in shaping the mentality of this region that when people are actively concerned and preoccupied with other matters, nothing else easily steps in to fill the void.

It's the first time in my life that I can recall that the sport that is our regional pastime has been entirely trumped by something else altogether in the psyche of the public. Many times before I've noted to anyone who would listen that I thought an obsessive reliance on the sprained ankles and rushing yardage of bunch of eighteen to twenty-two year olds playing a game was a dangerous means by which to boost one's self-esteem. My criticism, then as it is now, is that I'd much rather people branch out and be more well-rounded when it came time to pick a hobby. Furthermore, I know well that the kind of highly destructive rule violations that fell someone's favorite team often stems from players being paid off and players receiving special consideration---this flagrant and unfortunately frequent rule breaking is due to a large extent to people who have no better way to channel their leisure time. While I'm sure the recession has not stopped those who want to give their team an unfair advantage by way of an open checkbook, the average fan finds it difficult to muster the same degree of enthusiasm when preoccupied with matters like keeping a job, maintaining health insurance, paying off a car title, making sure the bills get paid, and wondering what will happen if the worst-case scenario comes to play.

It really makes me annoyed when the media talks up and in so doing gives a disproportionate amount of airtime to the wingnuts who dare to bring a gun to a Town Hall Forum, implying, of course, that peoples' outrage is bubbling over and that at any moment it might turn to outright violence. It's as if they're wagering that these people are the canary in the mine and some early clue to the next direction. Some in the media might perversely wish for this doomsday scenario because nothing would be more of a ratings bonanza than seeing a riot in the streets or an act of senseless violence in plain view of the cameras. The media have also been known to give a disproportionate share of airtime to the people who spout bizarre conspiracy theories or come to extreme conclusions with a kind of cocky, moronic defiance, only to receive their commuppence from a congressman or a talking head salivating to set them right. In contrast, what I observed when I attended a Town Hall Forum a week ago were that most people who stood up to the microphone were equally misinformed, equally cocky, but also equally sane. I also notice that most of the Town Halls which have been covered in the national media have been held in the presence of Democratic Representatives and Senators, which really makes me wonder why. The meeting I attended in front of a GOP representative was not recorded by television cameras, except the perfunctory interviews by local news stations with those who attended and the live reports covered outside by roving reporters. Was there some fear on their part of my Republican congressman that the vast amount of ignorance and bad grammar among those who asked questions would reflect badly on the party as a whole or on his own re-election bid next year? Perhaps the party as a whole is afraid this kind of genuine response among constituents would damage its cause when it turned out that those who oppose health care reform can only parrot discredited talking points, scare tactics, and immature logic?

And, for that matter, no network I know of has ever shown an entire Town Forum from start to finish, even in front of Democratic politicians, which makes one lose all sense of context. Many people have been slandered by quotes taken out of context in different circumstances, and this is why taking ten seconds out of a three hour Town Hall isn't exactly fair and balanced coverage. If one had seen the way that events progressed at the Town Hall I attended, one would have plainly observed that after it came time for those of us who favored the public option to speak, many on the other side who had previously been adamantly against our entire platform at least grudgingly conceded that the matter was far more complicated than they had ever before been led to believe. Soundbytes can never suffice for a complete picture of the truth and this goes for every event, including Town Halls.

Now I return, briefly, to the world I encounter on a daily basis. I don't mean to disappoint, but what I see in the great wide open is not the threat of societal chaos, or pervasive bad behavior in public settings, and certainly not overt ugliness between people. What I see, in great contrast to what many might wish to advance, is weariness and worry. The world seems frozen. Few have the energy to maintain even the pretense of sustained rage. From talking to friends of mine who are psychologists, they report that the number of people actively involved in talk therapy has grown tremendously ever since the recession took a stranglehold on the American way of life. Most have put a good face on but underneath that facade many are hurting and hurting badly. If this were reported, we might have more sympathy for the ignorant, the misinformed, and manipulated. It's easy to hate and it's easy to go for simple answers that only separate us from each other. Finding the human element that draws us all together might not be a particularly compelling news flash, but it's a far more truthful characterization.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quote of the Week

In the tragic days of Mussolini, the trains in Italy ran on time as never before and I am told in their way, their horrible way, that the Nazi concentration-camp system in Germany was a model of horrible efficiency. The really basic thing in government is policy. Bad administration, to be sure, can destroy good policy, but good administration can never save bad policy.- Adlai M. Stevenson

Saturday, August 22, 2009

No More Boycott of the Week Club

Recently, the CEO of Whole Foods Market spoke out against the public option in the Wall Street Journal and progressives were rightly outraged. In long standing American tradition, a boycott was immediately proposed and some creative soul instantly produced an appropriate graphic commemorating the event that one could display on one's blog or Facebook page. Most of my friends in real life and online signaled their distaste by instantly indicating that they too felt betrayed and then summarily forwarded via e-mail the sad news to everyone who might be similarly indignant. I very nearly signed up myself, until I took a step back and began to really think about what I was about to do.

Was I willing to embrace the eternal human response to cut off my nose to spite my face? I mean, can I name another place besides Starbucks where even part-time employees get benefits? After all, it certainly is nice to shop at a place where I can usually feel good about where my money's heading. As I understand it, the CEO of Whole Foods has professed libertarian beliefs on the record for years so it's hardly surprising he'd say such a thing. Maybe my pragmatic streak needs some use, since I admit it's gotten rusty since this whole health care matter started being discussed everywhere I look. Now that I've dusted it off, I'll let it speak for me.

I need to make a running tally of the number of people I know, organizations I belong to, or political entities who implore me constantly to boycott this, refuse that, or avoid this. While I do acknowledge that with the internet our world is in many ways smaller than it has ever been before, let me say that I could literally sign a petition, boycott an organization, or refuse to spend my money every single day. Websites like the late, great made me wonder if I needed to find the nearest commune or learn how to make all of my consumer goods from scratch. Already blessed with a fantastic guilt complex about my over-large carbon footprint and my paid for, but not tremendously fuel-efficient car, I suppose I needed more reasons to worry that I was destroying the planet and contributing to the destruction of Western Civilization in one simultaneous lethal combination.

It reminds me of how in France, strikes among government workers and nationalized industries are so commonplace that they have become part of the country's societal framework. One expects next that striking workers will provide timetables weeks ahead of time so that everyone can more easily prepare for them and make other plans accordingly. Strikes were never meant nor designed to become routine. They were intended to be relatively rare events that were products of necessity and worst-case scenario. Once they became routine matters that created yawns rather than heightened senses of urgency, the whole point was lost. And yet, the French cling proudly to this "tradition" and right to strike as an essential tool needed to win needed concessions, fair wages, and adequate worker's rights.

In writing this entry, I'm not really out to debate the merits of unions, collective bargaining, and striking. Nor am I taking a swipe at the French. Other people much smarter than I have done a superlative job on those subjects, and most of them are Republicans. What I am debating, however, is at what point boycotts, strikes, and other mass movements that rely on a combined effort to make their impact become overused. The symbolism of striking is as important as the instant impact of the deed. So in that spirit, no one (and certainly not I) doubts the good intentions behind any of multitude of calls to action now resting in your inbox and mine. What I question is if we'd be better served by knowing how to pick our battles. The key, in my mind, is to find some overlap and maybe devising ways to work together to fix societal ills.

Part of the problem is that often everyone wants his or her own Kingdom of control, which is why we have groups within groups that logic dictates would be better served if they were part of one bigger organization. This might explain why, for example, I get five e-mails from womens' reproductive rights groups a week, each of which says an identical thing to the four that came before it. It's rather comical if you have ever been privy to two separate people who want to be given credit for saying the same basic thing in their own words when delegating responsibility would be a much better strategy. The point, I hasten to add, shouldn't be about us. Any activist group I have ever been part of unfortunately falls prey to this problem from time to time. If we resolved to keep our egos restrained long enough, we might recognize that we can accomplish more together than we ever can apart. And, selfishly, I might not have to boycott quite so much.

Saturday Video

*Listener discretion may be desired.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dedicated to Liberality

British comic Josie Long mentions Robert Smith of The Cure, who I know is one of Liberality's favorites. She also mentions how much she despises doing market research which I can certainly understand myself.

Movie Review: Knife in the Water/Author's Interpretation

Influential director Roman Polanski's first film, Knife in the Water, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1963 Academy Awards. This was a heady accolade for such a young filmmaker and particularly notable because it was his solo effort. With its critical and commercial success he fell into that coveted and quite rare category of director who immediately finds an original voice and vision the first time out. Funded with government subsidies and as such its content and final cut largely beholden to Polish Communist officials, the movie doesn't branch out or explore as much territory as later Polanski films would. Running afoul of Ministry of Culture authorities from the start, they severely disliked the finished picture because it didn't resort to overt politicizing and didn't emphasize the social and doctrinal rhetoric the Party wished to make supremely clear to all viewers. Even so, it does include some very pertinent social criticism floating underneath the narrative, but the primary emphasis is upon the claustrophobia and the tension that builds to uncomfortable heights between three characters in close quarters on a small sailboat.

In particular, the substantive gist of the film revolves around male competitiveness, especially when it comes down to attracting a woman and winning her. A middle class, older, established, arrogant, and thoroughly unpleasant sportswriter parades his physical prowess, skill at boating, and trophy bride in front of a younger, working class rival. However, theirs is not the most stable of relationships and the vast amount of hatred which exists between them is never concealed. The woman soon displays a growing amount of interest in the young man, and the games that began with a pretense of fun between the two males become increasingly hostile, ill-mannered, and violent. By the end, both look not unlike animals in the wild competing for a mate instead of human beings, and this is a point the director emphasizes time and time again.

The greater profundity behind that statement is itself a particularly biting criticism which implies that in the survival of the fittest world of human interaction, true class or social equality is little more than a good intention unfulfilled. One can seek to regulate money or government, but what cannot be controlled are the primal ways in which humans function as uncivilized beings. Hierarchies and class inequality are more complicated than human-made constructs like money and material gain require more regulation than manipulating a few large variables in the hopes of providing total fairness to everyone. The products of a society, the film argues, are less important than the internal human conditioning that has persisted for thousands, if not millions of years. Even political ideology is trumped by fundamental animal nature.

In its day, this message was directed to the inner circle of the Communist party, who espoused egalitarian platitudes and the brotherhood of man while driving BMW's made by evil capitalists, coveting and freely using Western-made goods for their own personal use, and shoring up their power base by severely limiting membership into their own ranks. But two-faced behavior had a way of persisting.

The car that the couple are seem driving in the opening and closing sequences was initially supposed to be a Mercedes, but it was replaced with a more plebian Peugeot during filming to avoid political controversy. The more expensive car was perceived according to the party as an icon of Western luxury and decadence. During the shots, a prominent party member arrived at the plan in the newest model of Mercedes. He was invited by the whole crew with peals of laughter.

As it turns out, pecking orders seemed to be stubborn things that persisted despite valiant efforts to the contrary. When her husband is momentarily doing something else, the wife of the sportswriter boldly addresses the younger working class man by saying, dismissively, "You want to be like him. You'll end up being like him someday, and you'll marry someone like me". She assumes automatically that he'll embrace brutality and viciousness for his own gain eventually and in so doing score a beautiful wife just to make his point plain. As for her own motives in marrying the husband, one can safely assume that romance and love were not part of it. Even in a classless society, some classes are more equal than others. Social climbing and egocentric behavior aside, finding a mate in every society can often be a bare-knuckle brawl but I note that few have ever felt any compulsion to propose ways or establish movements to make dating more equal and fairer to all. I recognize it's not that simple: power, money, personal gain, sexual attraction, and charisma get wrapped up in the pursuit and it would be so much easier to explain, reform, and revise the matter if we could confront one variable at a time.

In our day, we can use the film's basic meaning to temper our expectations and our strategies for improving the world around us. Many of us, myself included, still believe that leveling the playing field for those of us who are less fortunate is a noble purpose and ought to be a moral imperative. The recent debate over Health Care Reform is one such instance, though it is only one. What we must take into account no matter what we do is that civilizations and the civilized impulse have only existed for a reasonably short period of time in the human psyche. The law of the jungle has existed far longer. But lest we feel as though we are swimming up stream, and though it might seem that we are fumbling about in the dark, we are also establishing precedent for subsequent reforms and future efforts which will be undertaken to improve civilization.

The bleak picture Knife in the Water paints might be too pessimistic to inspire, but it does contain a kernel of truth. No system, be it political or economic is going to be perfect and there will always be a certain amount of wealth, power, and influence concentrated at the top. What it might come down to then, is what flaws we find less objectionable. Liberals like myself often find the flaws of the government far more acceptable than the flaws of the private sector. Conservatives often find the flaws of the private sector far more acceptable than those of government.

But if we are united in anything, we are united in our own hypocrisy. Referring again to what Howard Fineman pointed out in a recent column, our attitudes on health care are motivated by a hypocrisy which states that we want small government, but we also want government to attend to our every need. Our definitions of "small government" and "need" vary considerably, but what I do notice is no matter how we define what we want, frequently someone ends up getting shortchanged in the process. Often someone has to pay more and someone else pays less. Often someone ends up with the girl and someone ends up without. We can strong-arm, intimidate, or coerce our way to what we want and create enemies in the process, or we can be too weak-willed, meek, and deferent and never get more than table scraps. It need not always be a zero-sum game but some want to play it that way.

When I think about the people who have lined up to oppose the public option and Health Care Reform, I see an army of true believers in a way of thinking that opposes bipartisanship and finding commonality. Reaching across the aisle might play well in Washington, DC, but among constituents, it is never seriously considered, or never considered at all. It will take more than a single issue to undo a monochrome view of the world. This might be the first step, but the real goal is to show people they don't have to play the same game, which frequently happens to be the only game they have ever known.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Here They Go Again

VEGETARIAN or VEGAN Needed for P/T Warehouse Help (no heavy lifting) (Rockville (by Twinbrook Metro))

Ok, ok, so we're not *technically* non-profit, but we are an ethically-based company that is not motivated by traditional "business" goals (and though we're not classified as a "nonprofit", we have never actually *made* a profit!). ;)

Pangea Vegan Products, the all vegan store and mail order company in Rockville, MD, seeks a motivated vegetarian or (preferably) vegan candidate for basic retail and warehouse (no heavy lifting) duties.

Job Description:
Fill orders in our warehouse; pack and unpack boxes; answer phones; other basic duties as needed.

Positive attitude, willingness to perform various tasks as needed, and good attention to detail.
Vegetarian or vegan (vegan preferred!).

This is a part-time position, approximately 15-20 hours per week. Preferably the hours would include Mondays and Fridays from 11am-6pm and one other weekday for a few hours, but there *may* be some flexibility in that.

Starting Pay Rate:

Pangea is easily metro accessible (Twinbrook station--red line), and offers a
very casual and friendly vegan environment.

A Legal Matter

Performer's Note:

This song has no current relevance to my life. It just happened to be the first song that I determined I could render a relatively decent rendition.

Snark of the Day

Happy Birthday to This Site!

This blog celebrates its Third Anniversary today. In attempting to note the event, I looked over the first few posts I made to this site. In so doing, I recognized how far I've come in improving my writing ability, networking with fellow bloggers, and learning the best way to spread my content across the internet. I'm sure I have miles more to go in that department but I have sincerely enjoyed feeling my way by way of an emerging and important communication tool to a greater understanding.

Once again, I want to thank the most important people ever and that happens to be you, my readers. Free free to help yourself to a piece of imaginary cake.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Health Care Lies: Witchcraft through the Ages

Now even the major media outlets themselves are acknowledging that credible sources undermining any attempt towards health care reform have willfully advanced misinformation using their own established channels. This, in and of itself should alarm each of us but it should also tell us that our often caustic, defeatist view of the media and how it functions might not be accurate. Part of the problem, of course, is due to the media's desire to seem evenly balanced in coverage at all cost. In its compulsion to fill up time with different and opposing content to fill out airtime on the never ending cable networks, what has been created instead is a soapbox for subterfuge. Wishing to show two opposing points of view out of fairness is one thing, but when one side is clearly wrong--peddling spin and distortion in place of fact---then no amount of best intentions can rectify it. I fully recognize that many have pointed this out before and I repeat their assertions only by way of stating my case.

Still, there is plenty of fault to go around. People believe and hold fast to inaccuracies advanced as fact because they seem credible enough. Howard Fineman of The Washington Post, writing in typically sarcastic form, noted in his most recent column that Americans' tortured attitudes towards health care are built on a hypocrisy: we want small government, but also want government to be large enough to attend to our every need. Outside of a strictly political standpoint, most people I know are also prone to hypocrisy on painful, personal, contentious matters. Such behavior may well be part of our intrinsic makeup, for reason or reasons unknown.

History provides many examples to explain why people find lies or scare tactics more satisfying than hard truths. In the Middle Ages, people felt the same kind of uncertainty and fear that stemmed from a lack of substantive answers to frequently confusing and poorly understood events in their daily lives. Both to justify and placate their emotional response, much as they do now, they conjured up fantastic, grotesque, outlandish, and utterly ridiculous conceptions of how witches controlled the minds and the habits of ordinary people. One notes with a degree of black humor that many who fanned the flames of witchcraft belief while eagerly introducing hysteria into the community had either too much time on their hands, a fantastic imagination, or both. The very idea of witches and witchcraft, though clearly fabricated constructs, at least provided something tangible upon which to channel the massive amount of negativity and anxiety that existed in the minds of many.

We, humans, do not do well with existential quandaries. Sartre and Camus aside, most of us like to deal with easily understandable solutions or relatively straightforward answers to assuage our base fears and insecurities. These days are full of paradox and irony and for those used to less heady subjects, I can understand why they feel out of control and powerless. Fundamentalism works on this premise, too. A very rigid, legalistic code of conduct and rules often gives those seeking solutions an easily comprehensible list of pat answers with the promise of supreme self-comfort if all they do is believe in them. One never needs to question or to fear. God will provide the guidance, the church will always provide the answers, and the only thing the individual is responsible for is complete faith in both.

Fineman's response also included his firm assertion that Obama's primary mistake in the Health Care debate was that he deliberately threw peoples' hypocrisy back into their face. According to Fineman, the President's decision to hold a mirror the ill-formed logic which formed the backbone of his opponents' case against the plan did little more than breed resentment and stiffen their resolve. However, it must be noted that we American have never, to my knowledge, insisted what sort of President it is that we want. In my study of history, it seems that different times called for different responses from the Commander in Chief, and some of what we wanted from him was justified and some of what we wanted was not. What I do know is that when this country really gets in trouble is when we desire an Enabler in Chief. Do we want a President to call us out when we're wrong or do we want a President to condone selfishness and rugged individualism by his own inaction?

I admit I wasn't as surprised as some when I realized that this health care debate was rapidly becoming yet another example of the culture wars, yet another example of a polarized society, yet another means by which the blue state/red state divide manifested itself, and yet another instance where our frequently championed diversity and melting pot aesthetic works against us, rather than for us. And if we are truly listening, we're having to take a serious look at our own hypocrisy. Only by confronting them can we ever deal with them and put them away forever. Here are a few:

1. I believe in a multicultural society, so long as those ethnic groups I champion in the abstract don't move next door or take my job or undercut my child's level of education. If they do, I'm taking my kid to a private school to be with my kind of diversity.

2. Smaller government is the answer, even though inflation continues to spiral upward, our population increases, and people expect more government, not less government oversight to monitor the private sector and guard against its excesses.

3. I don't want to have to pay taxes for someone else's surgery, but if I ever get sick, I fully expect them to pay for mine out of their pay check.

4. I don't want to pay too much for groceries or household items, so I shop at Walmart, but I surely don't like seeing China take our jobs and make our industries go broke.

5. Illegal immigrants need to be deported, even though they provide basic functions and backbreaking labor I hope I never have to do myself.

Most hypocrisy I see these days is directly created by a very short-sighted, cut off the nose to spite the face, unconcerned with anything other than the short term, unwilling to look at the big picture, refusal to take into account long-term consequences. If we were honest, really honest with ourselves--then we'd know that it does us absolutely no good at all to look first for the quick fix. Sometimes problems are easily solved and sometimes we over-intellectualize and in so doing over-complicate the situation. Yet, in my mind, lazy logic is to blame for most of our current woes.

Until we dare to put ourselves in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position for the sake of progress, we'll always look for witches in our midst.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

News from Last Night's Town Forum: A Recap

Last night I and other progressives attended the Town Hall Forum on Health Care Reform thrown by our Republican congressman, Spencer Bachus. Here in the predominately white section of the Metro Birmingham, Alabama, area we knew from the outset, that the congressional district in which we live is so overwhelmingly GOP in makeup. As such, we were well aware that we were going to be severely outnumbered at the event. However, what we didn't make allowance for was just how outnumbered we were going to be. Many estimates projected that a total of 1,500 concerned citizens turned out to listen, boo the referee and the other team, and ask questions. Of those, maybe thirty or so were on our side. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters).

What the local media did not report, however, was a very important element of the event that would have explained quite a bit to those not in attendance. Whether by design or purely by coincidence, most who turned out were working class, primarily rural whites living in small towns in the surrounding area, who are not surprisingly among the reddest of the red. Almost no one who opposed to the proposed plan was well-educated, affluent, or part of the so-called country club Republican set. This meant that the amount of ignorance, misinformation, rowdy behavior, and occasionally atrocious grammar they exhibited was on painful display, especially as the night wore on. At times, I swear I thought the Civil War was about to resume at any moment.

Congressman Bachus proved himself moderately adept at playing to the crowd---making sure to play the Jesus card with a kind of pious reverence and also making special effort to cite the bravery and valor of our fighting men and women in uniform. As he is not a particularly good actor, he came off seeming not much smarter than they and it was easy to see how little conviction he placed behind making these safe, crowd-pleasing statements. In truth, he didn't have to be a very good cheerleader or salesman. The masses didn't necessarily require or demand anyone with much skill at presentation, they just needed someone to say it so they could cheer, clap, or yell along in solidarity. What was supposed to be an honest discussion began, as we all expected it would, with a self-serving attempt to shore up his base and keep them satisfied that he would keep their interests at heart when he returned to Washington, DC.

And as I surveyed the mass of people opposing us, my thoughts turned to what then-Candidate Obama said in his speech on race in Philadelphia.

Their experience is the immigrant experience. As far as they're concerned, no one gave them anything. They've built it from scratch.

Truer words could never be spoken. This simple belief ran through every fear, every half-truth, every distortion, and every jingoistic platitude that most of the audience expressed vocally while at the microphone. Unlike some, I didn't automatically hate or revile these people. Rather, I felt sorry for them and I pitied their condition. Please don't take this the wrong way. I don't mean what I've said condescendingly. What I recognized in listening to their questions is that these people were absolutely starving for substantive discourse and food for thought but so rarely got it in their daily lives. Their class envy and inferiority complex towards those with education and superior financial means showed up frequently. With it I again understood how the practice of keeping the masses dumbed down, or out of the loop due to a lack of educational opportunity, or blinded by cynicism to such a degree that they do not believe participation makes a difference one way or another is a reprehensible, yet depressingly effective tactic. Their behavior, be it occasionally shouting down one of our speakers or treating those of us who favored a government-run solution as though we had leprosy could not be described as malicious or virulent. If their conduct was anything, it was impotence disguised as bravery, self-doubt disguised as cockiness, and confusion disguised as straight talk. There were no fist-fights, no moments of high drama, no pushing and shoving, and no heated confrontations between people in attendance. There were one or two of the same wingnuts with fifty page manifestos to pass out that show up at every function like this. But what did exist was in many ways more upsetting. It was a group of people who had embraced fear and emotion because they didn't have enough understanding of the topic to be able to contemplate the matter rationally.

The biggest rebel yells of what was, in all fairness, a Republican Pep Rally broke out when the controversial topic of illegal immigration was brought up by a participant at the microphone. Eager to introduce it onto the floor, Bachus and his people brought forth a slide they had prepared for the occasion designed to underline how much illegal immigration cost the average taxpayer. But only a moment or so later, after the Congressman mentioned for the fourth time that our country was broke, I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me that if we were truly broke, how we could afford to build a border fence or pay to have more border patrol police. A few people of an opposing view were sitting behind us and listening to what we were saying amongst ourselves. For a moment or so they were reduced to silence, since apparently they had never thought of the matter in those terms. In response to what we had noted, one woman to the right of me in the crowd noted without much conviction that we ought to consider throwing out all of Congress and start again. The transformation was telling. Representative Bachus had been these peoples' champion for most of the night and now many were beginning to see his limitations and the limitations of their own previously held points of view. Certainly this doesn't mean that they won't vote for him next year while holding their nose or even that they'll become Democrats and embrace a progressive agenda, but they might contemplate the matter more closely henceforth.

We did manage to catch Representative Bachus in an inaccuracy a few times when he made statements that were clearly wrong or distorted. For example, he stated firmly that people making less $35,000 in this state were automatically eligible for Medicaid. His point in saying so was to assert that, in his opinion, the existing system has no gaping flaws and doesn't need to be reformed. That was so egregiously wrong that I couldn't help but shout out, "Not in this state!" He seemed genuinely taken aback. In reality, in this state, one cannot make any more than roughly $16,000 a year and single people like me are often left out of the loop altogether. One must have at least one child before it is likely that anyone, no matter how deserving can receive the benefits. The only other option to receive Medicaid benefits is if one files for disability, but if one does that, he or she is stating officially that he or she is too ill or too injured to work. Most people I know (and this includes myself) want to work and are quite willing to pay into the system to fund the program. Moreover, a disability payment check per month pays out so little that it places one at the poverty line automatically, that is, assuming one wasn't there already. Aside from private health care, which is very expensive to buy if one's employer or lack of employer doesn't provide it, Medicaid is often the only way in this state where one can receive even some modicum of health care coverage. I know this quandary well because I recently lost my own Medicaid and have been scrambling to find ways to have my prescription drugs covered or at least somewhat paid for because the cost out of pocket is so prohibitively high.

To return to the Town Hall---the first hour and a half of it was devoted to those who opposed the government option, for whatever reason. Representative Bachus, to his credit, did allow those of us who favored Health Care Reform to speak at the end. And it was at that point that the self-satisfied, smug, arrogance that had characterized most of the Town Hall switched abruptly to sober realization. The protocol at the beginning to ask a question was to write it down on a notecard, at which point the card would be drawn out of a hat. If you were one of the lucky ones, you then read your question in front of the audience. However, by the end, in a barely concealed and highly hypocritical magnanimous gesture, he allowed our side the ability to speak in front of the microphone without needing go to through the assigned system, a pose adopted in a pretense of fairness. When an African-American woman attached to an oxygen tank due to a chronic illness that might soon kill her began to talk, I noticed a huge polar shift in attitudes and emotions in the room. She talked about the amount of money private insurance companies swindled out of her because the cost of her treatment exceeded what they were willing to pay. Though many found her question antagonistic and rambling, I did notice that the previous starch and enthusiasm of the crowd waning precipitously. Though I wish she had kept more to the point, I couldn't help but empathize with her situation. Next, her son, a young man soon to enter the Naval Academy, came up to the microphone next and asked the Congressman why we could always find the money to fund wars or other pet projects but that somehow when Health Care Reform is brought up in Republican circles, everyone asks, "How much is this going to cost?" His answer was also somewhat rambling, and he was shouted down by a few in the audience, but not everyone. Bachus was set back on his heels and made no attempt to answer the question. This question clearly rattled most of the audience as well. No matter what side you were on, the previous cock-sure bravado on display at the outset never returned for the rest of the Town Hall.

At that point, many people in the Conference Center began to file out. Either they had heard enough or they had begun to understand that the issue was much more complicated than they had been led to believe. It was a largely deflated crowd that left the Town Hall last night and the difference between the outset of the festivities and their conclusion was as different as chalk and cheese. I suppose we might consider that something of a victory in and of itself. Even so, I'm not sure we really changed any minds last night. While I hope we at least gave people reason to think more critically about their hasty generalizations and base prejudices, one really has no way of knowing whose mind was open enough to think of things in a different way. What I drew out of the whole matter is that if most people were given the ability to have and use critical thinking rather than pure emotion or facile talking points, there's no telling how many needed reforms and proposals to aid all of humanity that we would have enacted by now.