The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Technology-Driven Sheeple Machine

Sheeple Fox News

I for one am seeing a complete paradigm shift in American thinking, something unfolding, unknown in our history. It's not about what the politicians have done, or even the corporations. It's what we've done to ourselves. We have voluntarily and even aggressively sought to become a nation of sheeple.

I look back to the 1920's and 1930's for the beginning of this. Most people think of this as the Great Depression years, but it is also the Rise of Radio and also the Rise of Movies. Then the late 1940's and especially 1950's brought the Rise of Television. For the first time in history, this Instant Information Triad came into existence and began shaping the way people thought, felt, and even acted.

Before this, there were only books, newspapers, magazines, public town meetings, postal mail, or musical and theatrical performances to pass along information; this was slow and allowed for far more careful thought and discussion. Ideas traveled quickly, but there was a great deal of time to contemplate how they shaped society. But then, in the course of a single century, we added the instantaneous and directly audio-visual mediums of radio, movies, and television. Far faster than the written or spoken word, far more influential on our mental pictures of the world, our society became more homogeneous though the use of these instantaneous communication methods... and far less critical of what was being communicated.

Now add in the drive for consumerism which began in the 1920's and ramped up throughout the entire of the last century, mostly through the efforts of this self-same Triad. We were not only bombarded by advertisements, but also by both visual and auditory images of "the good life" expressed through everything from soap operas to comedies on radio and TV shows like Jack Benny, Family Affair, Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Dallas and Dynasty, 90210, The Nanny, or Prince of Bel-Air, ... all shows with rich or at least very well-to-do households... and I'm not even going to go there with shows modeled after Lives of the Rich and Famous. The American people were convinced that if only they got that good education, climbed the corporate ladder, or maybe just married well, they too could live "the good life". And if not, they could buy their way into pretending they were. After all, if Elizabeth Taylor wears that perfume it will make me smell like a rich movie star, Betty Crocker is as good as home-made, and if you drive a fancy new Lexus you're pretty hot stuff, right?

Now add in the multiplexing effect of the Internet, and we have a perfect storm of instant gratification, instant numbness, instant information (often without context), and even instant political activism. Especially regarding this last, people of this latest generation actually think that if they sign enough online petitions, and join enough online groups supporting this or that cause, they are actually accomplishing something REAL. Mostly, they find that texting their votes to choose the next American Idol is enough.

Many of these people even work from home, watch movies from home, order food to be delivered at home, and some even attend church from home. Socialization amounts to going out to a "rave" where you can't even hear yourself think, or going shopping with a few friends (assuming they're not all online too). And it's not the youngest generation of adults I'm talking about here... it cuts a wide generational path. I for one acknowledge the latent hypocrisy of bringing this to an online medium for dissemination; but what other path is open to most of us? We, in a very real sense, ARE our technology now. We're not cybernetic beings, but we're so dependent on instantaneous communication technology that we might as well be; and probably, someday, will be.

We are becoming a people who are intensely networked and connected, but who are in many ways almost completely mute. I think we're fast becoming a nation of mere IP address locations and pixels and bits... a 21st century finalization of the instant communication of the 20th century, with the resulting pacification effects that brings. In America, we have not only become used to our instantaneous lifestyle, but demand it; in fact, I am sure that for many people, life quite literally would be unthinkable without it. No TV? No Radio? No Movies? No Internet? How could we possibly survive?

And truth be told, in many ways, we couldn't. Modern society and infrastructure is built around this instant communication ability. Without it, many of us would not be able to survive; if there ever was any kind of world-disrupting communications blackout, a great many people in the "Developed World" would die off, leaving those in the "Emerging World" quite capable of taking our place. We are losing our ability to survive without the aid of our technology, and that is just not a good idea from an evolutionary standpoint, much less a rational one.

And it is making us impotent in affecting greater change in society. Completing an online petition to save rainforests is helpful. But if that's all you do, all day long, it may make you feel better about yourself but it doesn't save a single tree. In fact, if people aren't physically marching in the streets, demanding change, the people who run our government (the entrenched politicians and the corporate special interests) will continue to do what they wish in the "real" world, feeling safe to ignore the ghostly Diggs and Shares and Reddits and Tweets of the furious but ephemeral online hoards. They'll just send along some highly-shareable YouTube videos and text message us about a sale at BigOnlineMegaStore, and we'll remain nicely distracted.

Unless we constantly strive to sift out the subliminal and subconsious messages we receive, to think critically about the information (and to limit how much and from which sources it comes), to find ways to physically get up off our collective bums and take to the streets to demand action from the government that, for the moment, is still technically "ours", then this country is no longer going to remain "The United States of America". It will become something quite different, unrecognizable either to ourselves or our forebears. We must use our iPhones and Facebook accounts to rally real people together at real events, to get away from American Idol and Bachelorette, or this country will cease to exist as anything but a mega-corporate ATM full of easily-distracted sheeple, happily leading their consumer-driven lives as their financial and mental energy is sucked dry.

And rainforests will continue to be cut down, healthcare will remain in the hands of the corporate profit-makers, educational standards will continue to decline, infrastructure will decay and collapse, and the environment will destabilize and destroy all life on the planet except maybe cockroaches, crocodiles, and the few rich and powerful enough to build their own private Galtian communes to survive the apocolypse they helped, but did not force, us to create.

1984 and Brave New World combined wouldn't hold a candle to what we're headed towards unless people break their self-made chains. Marx didn't have any way to know at the time, but the "opiate of the masses" was not and never has been religion; it is information overload and consumer satiation. With those two working at the behest of the people themselves, corporatists will never have to fear a return to democratic governance, much less "socialism"; they simply send out new products and sell the latest fad, and democracy will wither on the vine with the help of every person with a credit card.

This isn't a blame-piece, nor a back-to-nature call for everyone to join communes and live in harmony with nature (although that harmony with nature part would certainly help a great deal). And this isn't a rant about the stupidity of the masses in the style of Matt Taibbi or Chris Hedges; it's more of a question, or perhaps a plea: what can we do about this? Is it inevitable, and the collapse into sheepledom well on the way to completion, or is there a magic bullet that will wake people up to their self-made fantasy of comfort and security? More than anything, I want answers as to how we can re-engage our citizenry and re-energize our country, how we can return to a democratic society where the corporate machine doesn't reduce people to mindlessness. Do we still have the power to change this, or should we all go turn on Dancing with the Stars and forget about this grand idea we used to call The United States of America?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

John's (In)Famous Creamed Onions


Warning: My apologies to my vegan and vegetarian friends; stop reading now and move along, nothing to see here! Also, there is absolutely no chance that the American Heart Association would endorse this recipe. Please have paramedics standing by before consumption.

I've been making this recipe for years around the holidays, and it's usually a big hit; my family considers me the "creamed onions" guy, and though I have a lot of other great holiday recipes, this one seems to be my specialty. As a number of folks have asked me "what's this creamed onions stuff you talk about", I thought I'd share my recipe with the world. Please consume at your own risk, and may whatever God or gods are out there have forgiveness on my soul.

My creamed onion recipe began as an experiment with a version of carbonara sauce, and has become virtually unrecognizable from those humble beginnings. Thick, creamy, slightly sweet, and so rich you can feel your arteries clogging with each bite, it's versatile as both a great side dish and an entree. Preparation is fairly simple and quick, and the recipe can be cut or added easily for different numbers of servings. The version here is for a basic four entree/eight side-dish servings.

John's (In)Famous Creamed Onions

1 large sweet yellow onion (Walla Walla if available), finely chopped (12 oz package of frozen chopped onions can substitute)
1/2 cup frozen early petite green peas (NOT canned!)
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs, finely crumbled
1 package Stouffer's® Creamed Chipped Beef
1/4 lb ham (smoked or honey depending on taste; chicken breast works well too), cooked and finely chopped
1/4 cup real bacon bits (medium finely chopped)
2 tbsp bacon "cracklings"
1/2 cup Swiss cheese, finely shredded (cheddar or other cheeses can substitute, but avoid "soft" cheeses like mozzarella)
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (half-and-half can substitute)
1/4 cup sweet cream butter (regular margarine will work, but increase heavy cream to 3/4 cup; low-fat margarine will NOT work well)
1/4 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp Tabasco® Smoked Chipotle Pepper Sauce
1 tbsp sugar (honey works well too)

Bacon "cracklings" should be prepared in advance; they are best prepared by crisp-frying 1 pound bacon, then removing the bacon for another meal, draining most of the grease off and retaining the leftover solids; do not allow to burn. Thaw peas to room temperature or microwave on high for 3 minutes and put aside. Cook Stouffer's® Creamed Chipped Beef according to package directions and put aside. Place chopped onion in microwave and cook on high for 6 minutes or until very soft. Place onions and butter in frying pan and sautee over medium heat for 10 minutes or until golden brown and just beginning to carmelize. Reduce heat to medium-low and add Stouffer's®, peas, ham or chicken, bacon bits, "cracklings", cream, pepper, garlic, Tabasco®, and sugar and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often. After 10 minutes, add bread crumbs, and continue simmering and stirring for an additional 10 minutes or until mixture thickens and begins to brown. Remove from heat and stir in shredded cheese until nicely blended. Serve immediately, either as a side-dish to complement turkey or chicken, or as an entree, such as over egg noodles for dinner, or even toast or an English muffin for breakfast or lunch.

Serves 8 as a side-dish, or 4 as an entree.

Hope you enjoy this as much as we have! All the best to you and yours for the holidays, and hope that you have a wonderful new year!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marriage By Any Other Name… Isn’t “Marriage”

Gay Weddings 7

I had a very interesting discussion on Facebook last night that I thought perhaps I would open up to a wider audience. The topic of gay marriage is always sure to bring lively debate, and one of the issues that continually comes up is “why not just call it something else, like ‘civil union’, to avoid the religious connotations; after all, what does it matter what you call it?”

This of course has been brought up and argued back and forth numerous times in the last many years, and of course I include my own take on it, but I would really like to see some other takes on this matter. Please read the edited conversation below, and add your own comments (and please keep it civil; I’m looking for reasoned arguments, not rehashing old talking points):

John Cline: From my new FB friend Jonathan: On Wednesday, March 1, 2006, at a hearing on the proposed Constitutional Amendment to prohibit gay marriage, Jamie Raskin, professor of law at AU, was requested to testify. At the end of his testimony, Republican Senator Nancy Jacobs said: "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?"

Raskin replied: "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." The room erupted into applause.

Stacy: Good point. Government should not be in the business of marriage - any marriage. The government should be dealing with the legal and contractual side (civil union contracts for everyone), and leave the sanctification of the union in a religious sense to the churches since marriage is a religious institution. That would solve the problem. Couples (or groups for that matter) of any type could enter into a standard definition of a civil union as defined by state governments, or customize a contractual relationship to suit them. Everything would be nice and equal as far as the government was concerned. It would be up to the individuals and their religious organization to define marriage. If the individual doesn't agree with their religious organization's stance, they can work to change it or find another religious organization. No need for intervention by the government or the general population. It would be all inclusive since agnostics and atheists could do the civil union and just skip the whole marriage bit.

Then we could forget the whole debate and get on with our lives.

John Cline: @Stacy, unfortunately too many people seem to think that marriage is a religious thing, which is 180 degrees backwards. Marriage in the United States is and always has been a civil issue, and the religious element has always been optional (except where the government and the religion are one and the same, such as the first Pilgrim communities, and even then it was recorded as a secular act which wasn't "official" until it had been sanctified before God). Somewhere along the way, folks here got the two mixed up, and now the very idea of "marriage" is intertwined with "before God", even though if you get married by a Justice of the Peace, or out at sea by a ship captain for that matter, you're still just as married in people's eyes (as long as you're heterosexual). The right-in-your-face hypocrisy of the whole "married before God" crowd when it applies to secularly-married folks seems to elude people. I'm not sure when in history all this changed, but I think you're basically right... until we get the word "marriage" either back to meaning the secular sense as it used to, or we find a new term to describe civil unions that doesn't sound so bureacratic, then we're all going to be arguing past one another over what should be a really simple concept.

Stacy: Who cares what it is called as long as the legal status is equivalent?

Heidi: I keep asking this question of everyone. If you and your partner are joined in a Civil Union then what is the term for your relationship? Are you married are you unioned , what term is used to describe it ? I think this is the hang up , we have to have a word to describe the relationship and from than we can get the word for the contractual act. Any suggestions?

Stacy: Spouse, husband, wife to describe each other. Pick whatever you like for the union. As a society we are WAY to focused on labels and pigeon-holing everyone and every thing, most often into two opposing categories. Politics is a perfect example. Little in life is binary, most thing in life are best represented by a continuum.

Heidi: It can't be pick whatever we like. One of the whole points of having a public commitment ceremony is to allow our friends and family to celebrate our ........?????? Our what? Our unioning, our marriage , our committal ...... While it is true that language can be used to label and pigeonhole but by far its most important function is too create common meaning and understanding. So if we all have Civil Unions then what is our common language to describe the relationship?

Heidi: Stacy this question is not directed at you, I would love to have input on what we should call this. I think by default people who are in civil union relationships call themselves married, as that word is the best one in our language that conveys all the nuances of the relationship. If we create civil unions as a state function for all and leave marriage as a religious ceremony then are those who are in a Civil Union married ? I don't know so I keep asking. Anyone have an idea or opinion?

John Cline: @Heidi: This name-issue is a universal problem, stemming back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Marriage is and always has been a civil issue. But throughout world history, until the establishment of the United States, civil/secular and the religious establishment were, if not one and the same, then in close proximity. In much of Europe until the late 1800's, and in some parts even today, ALL marriages occurred in churches with a priest or pastor residing, with few exceptions. Justices of the Peace or their equivalent existed, and could perform marriages; some nations had laws that allowed captains at sea to wed couples. But these avenues were rarely used, and were exceptions intended for when a pastoral presence was not available. Even then, the "accepted" route to take would be to get a civil ceremony, then "make it real" later in a church when possible. Legally, this never had to happen, but most often it did.

The same basic idea applies to marriages performed in non-European countries, going back to ancient Egypt, Rome, China, Japan, etc. Pretty much the only places you find civil ceremonies being the norm and religious recognition of same was more or less left up to the couples were in more tribally-based communities; in Great Britain, for instance, the ancient Celts and Welsh largely just tied a rope around the couple's wrists, pronounced them married, and off they went.

The birth of America screwed with this whole program. Suddenly we have a separation of church and state, but the institution of marriage has, for most of human history and in most cultures, been an inextricable linkage between the two. Even though civil-only marriage grew enormously in the 19th century and beyond, and was more and more accepted as "just as good" as marriages conducted by a religious leader, the idea that whether or not it was done in a religious setting the couple was still married "in the eyes of God" just never quite left the definition of marriage in the common understanding of it... even two athiests marrying were, according to the rest of the community, still married "in the eyes of God", even if they themselves didn't acknowledge it.

So semantics is part of the issue, but it goes deeper than that; despite the "legal" definition of marriage as a secular, civil affair, the psycho-social definition of marriage in most of the world is still inextricably intertwined with religious connotations, even within societies that are now largely secular or even leaning towards the agnostic. Therefore, to answer your original question of what to call it if not "marriage"? There simply ISN'T any other word to call it that has the same psycho-social cultural value. We would have to make up a word and try to promote it as the "new marriage", but it would take generations before that new word would not play second-fiddle to the word "marriage".

So to answer folks like Stacy and others who just say "who cares what you call it", it matters very deeply to just about everyone. Words like "marriage" carry more weight than mere definitions; they carry the baggage of our entire cultural history along with them, and so the only real answer is to let marriage be marriage, and quit trying to make up alternatives to marriage like civil unions, domestic partnerships, and acts of commitment. Those will never be, to most of society, on par with the simple word, MARRIAGE.

Jonathan: John, thank you for taking the time and the energy to write such a wonderful, sensitive rationale for universality of "marriage." As as gay man, I could never verbalize what you said, though the comments about "call it something else" aways bothered me. Thanks for laying this out in such a reasonable, calm and respectful manner.

Heidi: John I absolutely agree. I ask that question to get people thinking and I also wonder what they call domestic partners and civil unions, If they refer to such couples as married then why not call it a marriage?

Also remember our concept of marriage is culturally constructed and has changed over the years from a property transaction wherein the bride alone (the goods handed over) was blessed to the idea of companioship and love and the blessing placed upon the relationship. When it was a property transaction two free men could not get married because one could not be master of the other, now that it is for companionship and love, now that heteros have the same idea of the relationship that same sex couples always have had, that barrier is gone.

I could go on but I will simply suggest the book Same Sex Unions in Pre Modern Europe by Yale Historian John Boswell.

That was where we left off; now it's your turn. What do you think we should do about this issue?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sign of the Recession? Witches Forced to Accept Factory Jobs as Covens Lose Contracts

The Huffington Post has a really eye-opening story regarding our beloved "always trying to top the crazy charts" Christian Broadcasting Network (Pat Robertson's money-trough and googly-eyed wonderland of nuttiness). Seems that CBN is warning that Halloween candy is possessed of demons. Anyone who has eaten Halloween candy and become violently ill, not to mention 20 pounds heavier, already knows this, so it's not particularly newsworthy. But for me, here's the real kicker:
"For example, most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches."

One has to wonder: is the recession so bad that witches have to take jobs as spell-casters in candy factories? All the witches I know have been independent contractors working through their Coven Locals; if business is off this much to force them into taking factory lineworker jobs, we must be in some really deep doo-doo economically.

What has happened to all the spellcasting, potion and hex-removal work? Are there not enough places formerly occupied by "Bush/Cheney '04" bumper sticker owners still left to smudge? This is a crisis in the making; if enough Witches join the ranks of factory workers during Halloween, who will be left to keep the Sabbat of Samhain? Great disturbances in the Summerlands may be involved.

I'd be very interested in knowing too whether this is an issue involving just witches, or are warlocks similarly affected? If not, why not? Is there gender discrimination involved? Or is Robertson's website just being misogynistic as usual? We should demand data from CBN to support their claims, and to determine if we have a legal case in the making.

Another thing; are they just being hired as temp workers, to be let go after Halloween? Or will they be kept on through Christmas, Valentine's, and Easter? Are they being offered health insurance, or is magick considered a pre-existing condition?

I say we help our witch (and warlock?) friends out and buy as much Halloween candy as possible. Perhaps we can repackage it in red and green and give it to all of our evangelical fundamentalist demon-believing friends for Christmas... wouldn't that be a nice way to say "Merry Met, a Happy Yule and Solstice to ye, Enjoy Your Candy, and Merry Part"?

Friday, October 23, 2009

What's in your wallet? How about what's in your closet?

We are a society with a disease. We caught this disease willingly, even actively embracing it. It is an addiction... to "stuff". And one of the most interesting and telling indicators of this something seemingly innocuous: the size of our closets.

In homes built in the late 1800's/early 1900's, most typical homes had perhaps one closet, usually near the front door for coats. Many had no closets at all, and the attics were made up into living space, not storage. For ones with cellars or basements, those were most often used for short-term or seasonal storage and canned goods.

By the 1930's, homes were being built that had usually at least one closet, and often two or three. But these were usually under stairwells and often pretty cramped and tiny, about what you'd need for a broom and mop and bucket, or a few extra clothes. Basements were all the rage during this period, and more stuff was going into long-term storage down there.

By the late 1950's, homes were being built with larger closets and more of them, and the first "walk-in" closets (still tiny by today's standards, but you would actually stand up in them and move around). Attics began being used for long-term storage more than converted to living space, and basements were getting full of old pictures and trophies and clothes Aunt Betsy made for your mom's wedding.

By the 1980's, typical homes had a closet in every bedroom, hallway, and even bathrooms and utility rooms. Closet size increased dramatically, and walk-ins were considered the norm for the bedrooms. Basements and attics became less common, so they had to come up with alternatives for storing the accumulating stuff. Outside storage closets, carport sheds, and two-car garages (often for storage rather than cars) thus increased in number.

Today, any newly-built home you buy will most likely have nearly 1/4 to 1/3 of the total square footage set aside for some kind of storage (or potential storage, in the case of the garages; how many people do you know with homes that park their cars in the driveway, and when they open their garage it's wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling boxes and containers? I speak from personal experience here.). We have so much stuff in our lives that we must rent or own a home 1/3 bigger than we need (equaling 1/3 more energy to heat and cool, and 1/3 more land area taken up) just to have a place to put it all, and when you realize that the vast majority of it is stuff we will never, ever use again... it's just landfill fodder waiting for someone to haul it off. Think too of the added materials used to build it, and the added cost in rent or mortgage payments and property taxes for these mini-mansions, and it's mind-boggling.

Now imagine this... with nearly 7 billion people on the planet, nearly half of which are either actively consuming all this stuff or dearly desiring to attain the lifestyle to enable them to do so. In just the last 60 years, our incredible productivity, fueled by the active adoption by manufacturers of planned and perceived obsolescence in the 1950's, has enabled the U.S. to become perhaps the richest and most prosperous nation in the history of the planet. However, the cost has been that we have used up resources at a prodigiuos rate, polluted our air, water, and land, nearly wrecked the climate, and have created a mentality that "more is better" which robs us of the ability to simply enjoy what we have, and use what nature provides us with a conscious awareness of limitations, including building for quality and longevity rather than the profitability of six-month product lifespans.

America is addicted to "stuff", and we've infected the rest of the world with our disease. It's way past time for an intervention, and it begins with each and every one of us just buying and using less.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chantelle Princeton - Celebrating a Life Well Lived (Video)

Celebrating the life of Chantelle A. Princeton, born October 22, 1943 in Oregon City, Oregon as Delores A. Ray, we wanted to honor her memory by uploading this video on what would have been her 66th birthday.

She brought love, joy, and beauty into everything she did, including and especially her family. Through her 65 years of life, she raised two daughters, created cakes, pies, and professional-quality clothing, and had a really killer BBQ meatball recipe. Her greatest loves were sunny beaches and palm trees, and she always had a (not so) secret crush on James Garner. Even when times were tough and things seemed nearly hopeless, she maintained her integrity and great sense of humor. Sometimes she'd surprise you; one moment she'd be a dainty lady, with her frills and 'poofy-things', the next she'd be cussing like a sailor and telling bawdy jokes. She had a running competition with Imelda Marcos on who had more shoes, and she dearly loved her Lowery organ (which she hardly ever had time to play, but when she did, she'd bring the house down).

We're going to miss you, Chanty... even though you left this earth March 24, 2009, you'll never leave our hearts.

Even if you never knew Chantelle, please enjoy our tribute to someone we cherished very much. Hopefully, if you have lost a loved one, it will lift you up and bring a smile to your face. And if you have not yet lost someone you love, we hope that perhaps this tribute will return to your mind on that day when you inevitably will find yourself wrapped in both grief and joy.

(For previous posts on Chantelle's final days and the life she led, please see archives from March 2009)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Corporations and Free Markets Don't Mix:
How Ayn Rand Confused America

As we're seeing more and more talk of Ayn Rand today because of the collapse of the economy (new books, news broadcasts, interviews with Rand historians and pundits, even talk of a new movie or two), it occurred to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding concerning basic economic concepts that Rand herself perpetuated. I pick on Rand here, because more than anyone else it was her philosophy that most influenced our modern thinking about the wonders of capitalism, thanks both to Rand's own evangelism and that of her followers. And yet, what should have been seen as a very glaring contradiction with her own philosophy has instead been glossed over to become a rallying cry for ever more freedom for our beloved capitalism to "work properly". We have, partly due to Rand, a dual crisis: we don't understand our own terminology, and we have a fallacy standing in for fact about what now constitutes the role of the corporation vs. individual rights in this country.

It seems that Ayn Rand as well as most other people equate "laissez-faire capitalism" with "free market capitalism". Having read through her books, papers, essays, and interviews, I constantly hear her refer to "capitalism" and "free markets" interchangeably. But despite the dictionary definitions, they have morphed into two very different things, and hence what I believe to be a key confusion between what we see on Main Street and what we see on the Dow or S&P.

Rand is famous for saying that we should "hug the dirtiest, grimiest smokestack you can find" because it signified "progress", but her definition of progress is one-sided; the bigger the better. She lauds the entrepreneur, the small businessperson, the rugged individual who takes an idea and runs with it despite all odds, and then goes on to assume that the REAL pinnacle of success is some giant corporation or factory.

Capitalism, in whatever form, only works well when everyone is treated as individuals with widely-acknowledged and legally-protected individual rights. Nobody has any "special" rights, so everyone is on a level playing field, and what you put in is what you get out. But that's not what we have in America, or in most other capitalistic countries in the world. For over 100 years, we have enshrined the corporation with special rights; it is an entity before the law, with special priviledges, and for some reason Rand doesn't seem to see the huge contradiction here with her stance that groups have no rights in themselves; it flies in the face of her own Objectivist philosophy, and yet she holds the corporation out as the shining example of progress. No wonder things have gotten so confused.

In fact, she goes so far as to applaud corporations as if they were the embodiment of the individuals who started them; a super-entrepreneur, you might say. Perhaps this was true until the late 19th century, but today they legally and literally have a life of their own, and stand in stark opposition to the rights of the individual. They are special groups that have been given the rights of individuals, and yet stand in far less jeopardy of the consequences of their decisions than an individual must.

If a corporation kills someone with their product or unsafe working conditions, they may be fined and some executives may go to jail, and they may be legally required to make changes to their product or workplace; however, no matter how heinous the offense, the corporation itself is virtually immortal. On the other hand, if an individual entrepreneur kills someone with their product or unsafe working conditions, they themselves may face stiff fines, may go to prison, and may see their company go under. It is these corporations with "C-corp" and "LLC" as their structure that have been given legal entity status but do not have the same restrictions and consequences. These are at the heart of modern capitalism, and thus they make modern capitalism the antithesis of free markets.

Corporate capitalism is to free markets what water is to a fire: it does everything it can to dowse the flames. Capitalism seeks to destroy free markets; it is in the very DNA of a corporation to seek market dominance for their product or service, and the less competition they have the better. All corporate capitalists seek a monopoly, or at worst an oligopoly or trust. This may not be their stated goal, or even a conscious one, but it is how true laissez-faire capitalism functions when corporations are given special legal rights; if a company has driven all their competitors out of the market, has restricted entry into the market by newcomers seeking some of those high profits by owning or controlling all of the resources used to produce a product, and has reduced labor mobility by restricting wages such that workers cannot afford to move from one physical location to another, then we have exactly the conditions extant in the early Industrial Revolution, or more recently in the Banana Republics. Unlike the railroads of the 1800's that Rand speaks of, they wouldn't even need government intervention to protect their markets; just the legal recognition of their special entity status. If the government kept completely out of the economy, capitalists would just run their competitors out of business, buy up all the resources and sit on them like a mother hen, and charge whatever the market would bear. There can be no "free market" here, because corporate capitalists with special legal rights would kill it off.

Free markets, or free competition, on the other hand, is not corporate capitalism. It is free trade, where small individual entities are free to participate, or not, based on their values and based on free choice. Oligopolies and monopolies cannot exist in free-trade markets, because there is too much real competition and they would have no special legal rights and thus no jeopardy exclusion. The only way to ensure that real competition continues throughout the entire system is to eliminate the special exclusions for corporations and to provide a minimal and sensible amount of government regulation to ensure individual rights are protected.

Despite Rand's bald and unsupported assertion that regulation causes financial crises (she seems to pull that one out of the hat as a given, and nothing I've read from her or her golden protege Alan Greenspan seems to support this assertion with any factual or empirical evidence), in fact the opposite has been true throughout the last 70 years. It was the REMOVAL of regulation in the marketplace that led first to the S&L Crisis and then the current blow-up. Things had gone on pretty smoothly for over 60 years with Glass-Steagall and other regulations in place, with only minor bumps and glitches. In the three decades since massive deregulation has taken place, we have seen a suddenly unleashed corporate-led capitalistic system moving closer and closer to laissez-faire, with the result being catastrophe on a world-wide scale... and no accountability towards the corporations (or their executives) who created the mess. Millions of people have lost their homes, are out of work, may have to put off college or healthcare, and some may have (probably have) died; and yet the corporations who have legal protections and special rights that no individual can claim are able to walk away, shake it off, and go back to doing exactly the same as they were doing to create the crisis in the first place.

I have read stuff on Cafe Hayek and other libertarian websites that make me want to laugh, or cry, and often both: that the tiny shreds of remaining regulation and those pesky regulators who were still paying any attention were the true enemies here; it was they who caused the whole system to collapse. If they had just gotten completely out of the way, they claim, and all the remaining tatters of regulation were finally done away with, the markets would have self-corrected (and if any recession occurred, it would be a tiny bump folks would have hardly noticed). It amazes me to read their analyses and ideologically-driven fantasies of what "might have been" in the face of such massive evidence to the contrary. They are forgetting that we now live in a corporate-run version of capitalism, and not some "Unknown Ideal" of a sturdy band of rugged individualistic entrepreurs all competing on the same level. And yet, these are the same people who are still running the show at the Fed, the Treasury, and are advising the President; they are still trying to "shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub". If they succeed with current corporate laws in place, all that will be left to run things will be the corporations. We will have a true corporatocracy.

Laissez-faire capitalism is a nightmare waiting to happen as long as corporations have special entity rights; Rand and others should have recognized the difference between modern corporate capitalism and free competitive markets, and taken pains to point out how one is destructive to freedom and the other enhances it. The libertarian goal of totally government-free markets has just been tried in the financial sector of this country, with predictable results. How anyone can call themselves a libertarian with a straight face, and at the same time support corporate entity laws, is beyond me. That makes them corporatists, not libertarians who stand for individual rights.

Now, as we pick up the pieces, it's time to get smart about regulation; some of it was bulky and counterproductive, but much of it protected the free-market system from developing into runaway corporate-led laissez-faire capitalism; a little wise regulation is a good thing. Otherwise, what we are increasingly seeing today, especially in the increasing consolidation of power by financial giants like Goldman Sachs, may in the not too distant future end up with this:

"We the executives of Goldman Sachs, in order to form a more perfect stockholder ROI, eliminate justice, insure domestic consumption, provide for the perks and golden parachutes, promote the general indifference, and secure the blessings of taxpayer bailouts to ourselves and our political co-conspirators, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United State of Corporate America."

I for one would be exceedingly unhappy with this result.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Education in America: Are you appalled yet? You should be.

Healthcare reform, climate change, income inequality, and anti-corporatism are issues that are very important to me, but you might say my long-term passion is educational reform. I've been doing some research in that area recently, and the more I study, the more despondent I become. Since the 1970's, our nation has been systematically dumbing-down what we teach our children. TV has heavily influenced that, and so too has the rise of two income-earner families as well as the laissez-faire attitude many baby-boomers have had towards how we raise our children.

But the curriculum itself is collapsing in on itself, being reduced to a series of overviews and highlights, little more than episodes on a TV show which flash in front of our children, only to be gone and forgotten soon after. Context is slipping. Culture is being lost. Understanding of interconnections and interrelationships is diminishing. Our children are growing up full of knowledge, but in too many cases they are left without the basic philosophical and cognitive tools to put that knowledge to use.

Here's one example of what bothers me:

In 1920, my grandmother graduated from public high school. In 1948, my mother graduated from public high school. In 1984, I graduated from public high school. In 2010, the son of a friend of mine will graduate public high school. Now, let's look at what kinds of courses each of us had to take in school:

My grandmother: Latin (4 years), Greek (2 years), Classical literature (in the original languages), music, drawing and design, penmanship, world history, American history, citizenship, industry & commerce, bookkeeping, economics, ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, theology, psychology, social science, journalism, English composition, English literature, poetry writing, biology, chemistry, physics, basic algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry, basic calculus, agriculture and husbandry (hey, it WAS the early 20th century), German (2 years), French (2 years), and a few others.

My mother: Latin (4 years), Latin literature (in the original language), music, art, penmanship, world history, American history, citizenship, business, accounting, economics, philosophy, psychology, social studies, journalism, English composition, English literature, biology, chemistry, physics, basic algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry, basic calculus, French (2 years), Spanish (2 years), and a few others.

Myself: Music, art, world history, American history, civics, business, accounting, social studies, journalism, English composition, American literature, biology, chemistry, physics, basic algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry, basic calculus, computers and programming, shop class, French (2 years), and a few others.

My friend's kid: Western history, state history, TV broadcasting, English composition, American literature, finance and marketing, accounting, world studies, cultural awareness, general science, biology, algebra, pre-calculus, computer programming, Spanish (1 year), and a bunch of "electives" ranging from engineering technology to technical certification preparation to leadership training.

So what is happening here? My grandmother never went to college, yet she graduated high school with a more profound and in-depth education than many folks today leaving college can claim, and went on to establish a successful real estate business. My mother did go to college, completing a bachelors in social science, teaching for a time and then working for the state health and family services department. They were both avid readers, with impressive libraries, and could hold conversations in anything ranging from horticulture to politics to theology. It would not be unusual to have a verse from Shakespeare used to chastise my wayward self, or to overhear a heated discussion over whether Kant or Hume had a better grasp on ethics. Both my grandmother and mother were, by the standards of their day, fairly average. By today's standards, they would be mistaken for people who attended an elite private school.

My high school education did a fair job of preparing me for college, but just as important and as in my grandmother's and mother's case, it also prepared me for life. Even though by the time I got into school, Latin and penmanship and psychology were not offered, I still got a fairly well-rounded education with a lot of attention on history and literature, though in-depth attention to the classics and philosophical ideas were mostly left up to college. Thanks to my family, however, I inherited the same love for books, and my personal library threatens to push me out of the house.

But what of today's kids? Schools vary, I know, but the average curriculum offering (or at least in most cases, the required curriculum, even if a variety of classes are available) has declined in the very things needed to ensure a good grasp of the context, history, and interconnectedness of knowledge, while pumping up technology and business courses in order to make sure our kids "compete" in the world marketplace. Our expectations for our kids have turned towards technical and business achievement, at the expense of developing an understanding of how it all fits together.

Where is the context? Where is the history? Where is the cultural knowledge? Where is the human element? What binds all this technical knowledge and business learning and leadership training to an understanding of what has come before, where it all leads, and what implications our decisions have in a global context? You don't have to study Latin to read classical texts, but it sure helps to read the classical texts to understand that humanity is not just what you see around you today; the story by Plato of Crito's attempts to get Socrates to avoid his own death have logical and moral applications to today just as much as they did 2,500 years ago. But if you don't teach kids this stuff, they not only can't go around impressing everyone with their Shakespeare quotations, they lack a critical tool towards understanding the world around them. They live in a bubble of now-ness, with only a vague sense of some historical stuff that doesn't really mean much to them.

Over the last 60 years, our average educational requirement for our youth has gone from well-rounded and diverse to limited and career-centric. We are creating, with every graduation year, a new set of adults who have all sorts of technical and scientific skills, but no sense of history, no sense of philosophy, no sense of citizenship and political awareness, no sense of the interconnectedness of our culture going back thousands of years ago through today and on into the future.

We are steadily destroying our nation's understanding of who we are, where we came from, and what we are capable of being. And that is why I am appalled. It's not a matter of finding and laying blame; it's a matter of rediscovering how and what to teach our children so that they are armed with a greater depth and understanding of how the world works and how they fit within it. If we are to have a country populated by people who are worthy of the great trust men like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Jay, and James Madison provided to us, we must live up to their steadfast belief that only an educated and informed population can be free.

We must reverse this course, stress the humanities, classics and arts once again as well as the math, technology and science, or by the time our children's children are grown, and all of us who were blessed to have a well-rounded public education are gone, who will stand up and say "This is not right!" when none except a few privately-educated elite are left who knows the truth? We are raising a nation of cultural and historical illiterates, and if this continues, we will cease to be a nation: we will become a land of highly-skilled, technologically savvy contract workers who are left dumbfounded at the depths of a Hallmark poem.

Monday, October 12, 2009

White House vs. Fox News: Distraction,
or the Most Important Battle Facing Our Country?

Image from the Facebook group "Quarantine Fox" (link here: must be a Facebook member to join)

A friend of mine recently expressed frustration that the White House is calling out Fox News for that they are: a propaganda mill for the right. She called it a "distraction" to keep people's minds off the "important issues". I can see her point, but is it really a distraction?

For one thing, I'm rilly-rilly liking me some fight-back against Fox... FINALLY!.

For another thing, who's distracted? It's not the folks who really care about these issues, and for everyone else, they could care less. And besides, one of the biggest targets for me IS Fox News... they need to be, because they're our main enemy in these fights; without them, hardly anyone outside of Minnesota would have ever heard of Michelle Bachmann and her crackpot ideas, or Glenn Beck, or Hannity. They would be reduced to what they are... sideshow cranks... without Fox to amplify their idiocy and give it "credibility". With Fox, EVERYTHING we need to get done in this country is 1000 times harder.

Every time people say "quit with the distractions", it seems to me they're kind of missing the reality of things in America. To most of the rest of the American people, honestly, healthcare reform, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, etc. etc. ARE the distraction, sadly enough. They just want to find out what their team did to win the big game, or are concentrating on just struggling through the recession (without really caring about all the economic infighting going on... even the Stimulus Packages only get moderate attention, because it has something to do with jobs).

I was sitting in a bar with my wife a few weeks ago, waiting for a to-go order to arrive. As we sat there, I listened to the conversations around the room. I heard folks talking about sports, about their work, about their kid's school, about the opposite sex, and lots more. You know what I didn't hear, in the 25-30 minutes we sat there in a room with maybe 30 people chatting? Not a word about the speech our President had given about healthcare the day before, in which Joe "You Lie" Wilson gained his fame. Not a peep. The "You Lie" heard round the world, not to mention any subject pertaining to politics or healthcare at all, ever came up that I could hear (and you could hear almost everything). Now this may have been a fluke, but what it made me realize is that MOST OF AMERICA IS JUST GOING ALONG, GETTING ALONG, and don't really care about all the "big issues". They're sheeple, or worse, they're apathetic. It was a big wake-up call to me.

It's only the few of us who really care about these issues that do the political work and write the articles and keep it alive as political issues that really matter, sadly enough. The majority of the American public is already completely distracted, and barely even know most of this stuff is going on. When EVERY EPISODE of Dancing With The Stars gets more audience than all of President Obama's speeches combined (except maybe the acceptance speech), then you gotta know that we few are the only ones who are going to get anything done... and we can't afford to worry about "distractions".

If you care about these things, these truly important things, you won't get upset by "distractions" because you'll be so focused on getting stuff done, a nuclear bomb going off right next door wouldn't phase you. As for the Fox thing, personally, THEY are part of the reason we are in such a mess today, so by all means, have the President call them out for what they are... propagandists and tabloiders. Confine them, make them irrelavent, make sure anyone who "runs" with one of their manufactured "stories" only does it with a clarification that it came from Fox News and therefore is suspect. Make people know that Fox is exactly the opposite of "Fair and Balanced" and that they, and "hate radio", are promoting an agenda that is dividing this country and creating havoc and hardship not only for all the rest of us, but even for the very folks they attract for an audience.

If we do this, we stand a chance to finally take back our country from the hatriots and fear-mongers and crazies. If we do this, then soon enough that particular Fox will be what it deserves to be... roadkill.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Six Months Ago Is Today

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It's funny how subjective time can seem.

You know the feeling? Like when you go driving, trying to find a business or house you've never been to before; getting there seems to take forever, as you look all around for the address, but when you retrace your route, it seems to take no time at all getting back.

That's how these last six months have seemed to us. Six months ago today, March 24, 2009, at 5:12 p.m PST, my wife Julie's mom Chantelle slipped away from this world. Looking forward from that day, half a year seemed so far away; now, looking back, it seems as though it just happened, as fresh as yesterday.

Now, I look back at the blog posts (links below) where I recorded the events and our thoughts and feelings from those fateful four days, and I wonder to myself, "How did this all happen?" From the time her heart stopped, the 45 minutes of CPR and shocking, her "revival" into a deep coma, and our agony over what to do as the doctors gave us less and less hope for her recovery, we grew more and more puzzled. She had some medical issues, such as high blood pressure, borderline diabetes, and her ever-present weight problems. But What killed her is going to forever be a mystery, because the doctors were never able to figure out exactly what it was.

We've spent the last six months asking ourselves pretty deep questions, but the most troubling to us has been, "Why then?" Chantelle was ONE WEEK away from retiring from her job, had just gotten her first Social Security check, and was looking forward to our impending move to her beloved Denver, Colorado so she could get back into a church, find some social groups, and hopefully even find a husband to spend the rest of her sunset years dancing the night away, traveling the world, or at least having a serious cuddle with as often as possible. Instead of ending 65 years of always-struggling, often-painful, sometimes-depressing life by finally enjoying herself and once again finding love, her life ended just a few days before all that could happen.

A sudden death never seems "fair", but sometimes you have to wonder if some aren't more unfair than others. We still often get into conversations that of course go nowhere... asking "Why?!?"

But as we've spent these many months sifting through years of her accumulated "crap" (Julie's word!), from enough cake decorating equipment to open a bakery to enough fabric and patterns to outfit a craft store, and after what seems like hundreds of trips to Goodwill and other charities, we have finally boiled down her life's possessions into a manageable and precious collection of what we hold most dear. There are the pictures, of course. And we kept some of her hand-made clothing (even though much of it no longer fits) and many of her "crafty things" that don't really seem to have a purpose, but she loved them so much we can't seem to bear to part with them. We made new discoveries: pictures we never knew about, artwork she had done, diplomas and certificates for programs she never used, letters she had written, old birthday cards and drawings from her two girls she had stashed safely away. The debris of a life of love, of missed opportunities, of half-finished projects, of cherished memories and keepsakes.

But part of the "Why?" we have been able to answer, at least in part. And it's a story of two kinds of medical systems in this country.

Chantelle was very much interested in the current administration's plans to revamp healthcare, so I do not feel I am over-reaching to turn this from a discussion of her last days into a discussion of the healthcare situtation in this country. The reason is because both Julie and I have come to the conclusion that at least one aspect of Chantelle's death came from her years of stress over an enormous medical bill.

At the time of her death, Chantelle was working for Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon. She was covered by Kaiser's cadillac insurance program, so when she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, she received absolutely excellent care in every regard. Even though she was taken to Providence Medical Center rather than a Kaiser hospital, they covered everything; they just took a photocopy of Chantelle's insurance card and some information from Julie, and that was it. When it was all said and done, Julie and I had to pay only $50 out of Chantelle's estate to cover the cost of the ambulance. This, from a final bill of nearly $50,000. On top of it, as we were standing beside the bed saying our last goodbyes, Providence had a harpist come in, dim the lights, and sing and play as she was removed from life support and her body allowed to join her soul, which had obviously gone on four days before. It was all very beautiful and even joyous in a quiet, peaceful, and sad sort of way.

This is how end-of-life care should be for everyone, not just for those with "cadillac" insurance!

Now contrast this with an event seven years earlier: Chantelle collapsed in a faint, was rushed to the hospital, and was told she had to have a pacemaker installed immediately or she would most likely die: her heartbeat was hovering around 20 beats/minute. While her mom was in the ER getting checked out, Julie was ushered into the financial services office of the hospital. Since they had just arrived in Riverside County, California from the adjacent Orange County, and had not yet found jobs, they had no insurance. The financial advisor told Julie, "Don't worry, if you can't pay the county will cover it." Reassured, Julie completed the paperwork and went to be with her mom.

After the surgery and brief hospital stay, they went home and Chantelle began the recovery process. It didn't take long before a letter arrived, demanding nearly $50,000 in medical expenses. After calling the hospital, Riverside County, and even Orange County, they discovered that since they had not lived in Riverside County for at least 30 days, they were not considered "residents" and thus not eligible to have the county cover the bill; since they had moved out of Orange County, they were no longer their problem; and the hospital basically said "Nobody here would have told you the county would cover it without checking first." So, unemployed, fresh out of pacemaker surgery, in the middle of a recession, the collectors started their relentless hounding.

Over the years, Chantelle made some efforts to negotiate the bill, all rebuffed. She sought the advice of lawyers and medical legal experts, who essentially told her to either pay the bill or declare bankruptcy. The collectors became ever more insistent, sometimes calling her at work, at home, or on her cell two or three times per day. She put call blocks on the phone numbers, and they just kept changing numbers on her. She would get at least one written notice every week, sometimes more, and often in the most threatening of tones. Threats to take her to court, to confiscate her house (which she didn't own), or to take her car, or to seize other assets. Legislation in the middle of this decade helped a little to ease the abusive tone of the calls and letters, but they kept on coming relentlessly nonetheless.

Six years passed, the legal "statute of limitations" for taking an old debt to court. And the calls and letters still came. She sent them official notice to cease and desist. When they weren't outright ignored, the collectors pulled their loophole out and sold the debt to another collector, who would start everything all over again. For nearly seven years, collectors caused her enormous stress and literal heartache over a debt that SHOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED!

In those seven years, Chantelle had regular visits to have her pacemaker checked out. Every time, it dumped the collected data of her heart activity for the doctors to view. And every time... every SINGLE time... it came back clean. No sign her heart had any trouble keeping a beat all on its own. She had one just before her final collapse, and again it came back clean; in fact, the doctors were suggesting she have it removed completely. So why had she had to have one installed in the first place, if it seemed as though she never needed one in the first place?

Various legal folks have told us that we don't have a case, and we're not interested in suing anyway. What bothers us is how what may have been a simple misdiagnosis of irregular heartbeat when it could have merely been an early sign of diabetic shock turned into a $50,000 bill and seven years of sheer collector hell? That's the problem here; it's not the misdiagnosis, which may have simply been due to related symptoms and the rush of the ER. It's the fact that seven years later, after being hounded by a relentless and endless group of collectors, her life ended at least partly due to the stress of having to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an operation that she evidently didn't even need.

One final bit of irony, and overwhelming anger, happened on the day she died. As we were driving home from the hospital, quiet in our thoughts, her cell phone rang. I answered it, and it was "her" collector. I quietly explained that Chantelle had just passed away minutes earlier, and to please stop calling and sending her collection notices. After the most perfunctory of "I'm sorry to hear that" comments, this person then asked me, "So will you be paying her debt out of the estate?" After a moment of shock, I lost it. Here we were not even home from the hospital, and this vulture was already swooping in for scraps! I yelled back at her, "You're not getting a cent out of her, her estate, or anything else... she's dead! Do you not understand what I'm saying? SHE JUST DIED A FEW MINUTES AGO!!! And you helped kill her!"

I was angry and upset, and the person on the other end made some weak apology and hung up... and gloriously, we have never heard from them again. But those words have come back to me time and again, and I really do think now that the collectors had some part in killing Chantelle. Not quickly, but like slow poison... bit by bit, nibble by nibble, slice by slice... they ate away at her soul. For all her joy at retiring and starting a new life in Colorado, her one persistent concern was "those goddam Riverside people, they'll never leave me alone".

And nobody in this country, or any other country in the world, should have to spend the last years of their life giving serious consideration to declaring bankruptcy just to gain some peace from a medical collection agency. Chantelle was interested in the healthcare debate, but following her death it has come front and center for Julie and myself. At minimum a public option with open enrollment (as the Wyden amendment provides) is a necessity; I would prefer a universal system that covers every single human being in this country such as the Conyers bill, so that nobody ever has to go through what Chantelle, and those who loved her so much, has had to go through ever again.

For those who would like to know something more about the tragic events of those days, some recollections of Chantelle's life, hopes and dreams, and perhaps if you have not yourself lost anyone dear to you a glimpse of the chaotic mixture of joy and grief that losing a loved one entails, please read my blogposts from March 21st onwards:

Friday/Saturday - Chantelle collapses, "goes to sleep"

Saturday/Sunday - I've never been so proud of Julie

Sunday/Monday - Waiting for family to arrive, hope changes to acceptance

Monday/Tuesday - Saying goodbye

Wednesday - "Mumzy", a poem to the fallen

Friday - The perfect (and funny) tribute to a life lived face-on

Chantelle's Memorial Page and thank-you to the doctors, nurses, friends and family who were so supportive both during and after her passing

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Universal Golden Rule

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Perhaps if we all stopped for a moment and realized this is not "us vs. them"; it is all of us together.

"Blessed are those who prefer others before themselves."
Baha'i Faith

"Hurt not others in ways that you would yourself find hurtful."

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"This is the sum of all duty: treat others as you yourself would be treated."

"No one of you is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself."

"In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, regard all creatures as you would regard your own self."

"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."

"Be not estranged from another for God dwells in every heart."

"Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self."

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The French Guy Nailed It

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Alexis de Tocqueville hit the nail on the head way back in the 1830's. It just took longer than he predicted.

He described Americans as a tough, proud, independent people, with much to be admired and great potential, and marveled at how what he viewed as "26 American republics" could continue to work so well together. But he also warned that this "go-it-alone" pioneer independence also would lead Americans to be a less caring, less cohesive society. He compared American society to European society, and while the latter was more village-based and the people more used to working together and supporting one another, the former were more likely to look out for themselves first, and devolve into faction and tribalism.

He also saw a key element that was critical to that young American society: for a democratic republic to operate properly, the citizens must be at least moderately educated and must be kept informed of what the issues of the day were all about. To him, those who chose their leaders based on emotion, ignorant of the issues and the people they were selecting to represent them, were inviting tyranny through the front door.

170 years later, what do we have? Americans screaming "socialism" at the very thought of covering every citizen of this country with good healthcare as if it were some monstrous spawn of the Devil, and Europeans shrugging their shoulders and making sure everyone has universal healthcare, because they just think it's the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, we have a country where one in four people believe Obama is a Muslim, or a socialist, or a fascist, or all of the above. We rank 29th in the world in science, and nearly half of the people in this country think creationism should be taught in schools. Almost ten percent of the population believes we did not go to the Moon, and about half of those believe this because they are convinced the world is flat. If you randomly stopped 100 people on the street and asked them, "Of these five countries, which is a democracy: France, England, Spain, South Africa, or the United States", more than 60 of them would reply "The United States" (hint... trick question... they're ALL democracies).

Perhaps worse of all, despite repeated failures including our latest Great Recession, nearly half of our people still think that an unregulated free market is the best way to handle just about anything, including their own healthcare.

Tocqueville anticipated all of this, and his warning that only an informed, educated population would be able to stave off collapse has been lost to history. The media, which along with the schools used to be the prime resource for keeping the population informed, has instead turned into a corporate-led propaganda machine feeding pablum to soften the brains of the masses. And schools have been under assault for decades with every variety of "new teaching" method that ends up only dumbing-down the material and sends our kids off to college barely able to read or write, much less use critical thinking or have a real sense of culture and history. Meanwhile, we complain about offshoring of jobs, when many of our children are growing up with barely the capacity to perform the jobs that are being offshored.

I think that 19th Century Frenchman was a pretty smart apple... and I wish they would require at least the first half of Democracy in America to be read, reported upon, discussed, and analyzed deeply in every high school in the country. And while we're at it, make it required reading for incoming politicians and officials. But I fear it's already too late for that.

Lurking in the darkness behind any democratic republic is a monster which feeds on ignorance and apathy. While both exist in any society, when they come together in a large enough segment of the population, they form a seething, synergistic mass which grows like a cancer. How large a segment is needed before a democratic republic collapses, and devolves into a neo-monarchic tyranny, or worse? While there are no hard and fast numbers for that, just remember: nearly one in three Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth.

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Friday, September 4, 2009


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Birthers. Tenthers. Now we have "Indocrinators". What's the next steaming pile of crazy?

As I write this, schools around the country are sending out "permission slips" for parents to sign to view the Obama webcast, and in some cases are refusing to show it at all. This, because angry and irate parents are innundating schools everywhere with phone calls and emails complaining that their children will be "brainwashed" by President Obama. These people believe that exposure to even a few moments of encouragement to do well in school, take responsibility for their lives, and work hard in their communities is tantamount to socialist indoctrination, Hitler-Youth propaganda, and the beginnings of a Black Panther/SEIU/ACORN takeover of our country.

What's next, permission slips to view old newsreels or films about FDR, or Ike, or Lincoln, or Truman, or Nixon, or Kennedy? Permission slips to read history books that contain anything vaguely "political"? This is where we are as a country today? Have we become so divided as a country that we politicize our own children?

When I was in 3rd grade my class wrote letters to then-President Ford. I guess it was some sort of contest or something, because we all got invited to go meet President Ford and get our class picture taken with him. We took the school bus from Iowa to DC. I really don't remember much about the trip, and the White House was a blur, but here's the kicker:

Every parent, Democrat or Republican, was excited and thrilled that we were going. Everyone in town was thrilled. It made the papers, and people of all stripes cut out the article, putting it in store windows for everyone to see. I heard many years later that some grumbled about Ford's politics, but not a single parent would have let us miss that chance, and thought it was marvelous. My mom, a devoted Democrat, was bubbling with excitement for me. Today? Even the brief appearance by our current President in a classroom webcast brings horror and cries of outrage from ultra-right-wing parents who do not want their children to even LISTEN to a liberal President. THEIR President, liberal or not.

Where is the respect for the OFFICE, if not the man? Did the Bush years so damage our country, that we no longer hold dear the values that have built and sustained this country? Does it go back to the Clinton "scandals" that Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich were so anxious to promote to divide and conquer in the House and Senate? Are these the final fruits of Nixon's corrupt administration? Whatever the cause, or causes, it has led to a disintegration of respect for the Office of President, no matter who occupies it or what their political or ideological views may be.

Those that are doing this are profoundly un-American, even anti-American, in every sense I know of the terms: "At long last, have you no decency?" This is disgusting, shameful, repugnant behavior for anyone who calls themselves a citizen of this country. They have no sense of shared citizenship, shared country, or shared history. They do not believe that liberals (or even those who identify themselves as moderate Republicans and conservatives) should be allowed to exist in "their" country; we're no longer "fellow citizens" to them. To these people, liberals and all those to the left of John McCain (and many include him as well) are interlopers, somehow alien and diabolic, who are out to destroy "their" country. They really, truly see us as the ENEMY; not in some hyperbolic political or ideological way, but as actual enemies of the State. THEIR State. Though they're somewhat tolerant of moderates, to them liberals are a cancer, a blight, a pestilence, an abberation that must be wiped away to restore the moral clarity they claim only for themselves.

For to them, liberals (and moderates: no room for "independents" in the "You're with us, or you're against us" crowd) are a light shining on their hypocrisy, exposing their lies, and contradicting their dystopian worldview: a worldview that justifies endless war as a "righteous cause", that amplifies and rationalizes class distinction and income inequality, that shows how they wrap themselves up in the Constitution with one hand while taking an eraser to the parts they don't like with the other. Liberals are the antithesis of all they hold dear. And what they hold dear is fear, power, greed, money, exclusivity, and hatred. They are Golem, enamored by "My Precious". They see nobody else, care for nobody else, think of nobody else, except for themselves and those few who share their twisted, myopic worldview.

Today, years after invading Iraq, when it has been proven conclusively that Saddam Hussein was not trying to build a nuclear bomb or creating chemical weapons, more than 25% of the American public still believes he was actively building WMDs. Think about that a minute. More than ONE IN FOUR PEOPLE you walk past on the street still hold onto a belief that has been disproven time and again. Why? Because those in their tribe, their authority figures, told them it was true. Anyone else who comes forth with proof otherwise is ignored, because the information doesn't come from their tiny group of trusted sources. More than ONE IN FOUR. And that's just the WMD issue.

George W. Bush said, "They hate us for our freedoms"; he thought he was talking about the terrorists, but he was really talking about his own followers. The Teabaggers, the Birthers, the KKK and NRA crowds (which are increasingly hard to tell apart), the Bachmanns, the Palins, the Becks and Hannitys and Coulters... these people hate, loath, resent, and try to destroy anything they consider "liberal" because they are deeply, deeply fearful of what liberalism represents: trust, love, openness, diversity, equality, compassion, compromise, and acceptance. Liberals represent freedom; they represent repression.

These people are not "conservatives" in any commonly-used sense of the word, and we should stop lumping them in together with true conservatives. If they were, we wouldn't be having these kinds of problems. True conservatives have open minds, use reason and judgement, and are willing to compromise and work with liberals, even when the two vehemently disagree.

No, these people are conservative in the most limited of senses: they are Tribalists. They see only themselves and those in their tight inner circles as being worthy of attention. They dearly love one another, and have true compassion for their neighbor... as long as their neighbor isn't "one of those". They are open and accepting... as long as you agree with them. They are trusting... as long as the person they trust is either a recognized authority figure, or someone whom they have authority over. They believe in equality... as long as it's within their very narrow group of "acceptable" people (remember who wanted "separate but equal" segregation?). They believe in a good education... as long as it doesn't include "dangerous" subjects.

They cannot imagine life outside of their chosen tribe, and if they do, it is by categorizing everyone else as "other" and somehow not quite human, not quite worthy. Friendships outside their tribe are limited and always subject to scrutiny. These people are closed off from the rest of the world, and see no reason to join it. But they certainly expect the rest of the world to conform to their worldviews, and if it doesn't, all hell breaks loose.

So if Tribalists represent something so closed off, so fanatically afraid of "the other", what do you call the rest of us, liberal, "true" conservatives, moderates, non-aligned? For the sake of the rest of this, let's just use one term: Real Americans.

Real Americans encourage understanding of other people and other ways of doing things. They are interested in other cultures and other beliefs. The toleration threshold for differing opinions and worldviews is very high, and though not perfect, Real Americans generally adopt the attitude of live and let live, agree to disagree. They actually go out of their way to demonstrate compassion for their neighbors, no matter what they believe. They try to live by the adage of Samuel Johnson, "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good". Real Americans are big on freedom of education: that learning and knowledge is what keeps us free, and that it expands the mind of man so that new ideas and new innovations can grow and prosper. When the world doesn't hew to the Real American's mindset, the tendency is to at least try to expand that mindset to see other points of view. If the world is unjust, they seek justice through peace and cooperation, not force.

The people screaming at townhalls, glorifying Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, consistently re-electing people like Michelle Bachmann and James Inholfe, and now calling our school districts to rabidly and irrationally complain about the President of the United States of America speaking to children about the IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD EDUCATION are not Real Americans, they are sick. I don't mean that as a perjorative, I mean it literally. From the standpoint of the rest of Real America, they are ill, not in their right minds, rationally impaired, cognitively dissonant, living in a false reality of their own making: crazy, if you will.

Some tribes of the American Indians believe that a crazy person is actually someone to respect, a sign of being inhabited by a spirit. But they don't necessarily venerate them; they understand that spirits can be benevolent, neutral, or malevolent. What we have here is a malevolent spirit, occupying more than ONE IN FOUR people in this country, and though we need to show it respect, it is the same type of respect you show a dangerous, wild animal.

This malevolent spirit feeds on fear, hate, and anger... but mostly fear. Fear of the unknown, of the "other". Instead of wanting to live in Real America, these people all want to live in Mayberry, living Ozzie & Harriett lives, where everyone is a Good Christian who goes to church on Sunday, everyone is white (except for Ol' Joe, the Negro porter down at the railway), everyone gets good grades in school and never kisses on a first date (and God forbid, never see each other naked until the night after the wedding, if then), and everyone gets along (so long as everyone does what they're supposed to do). These are people who saw the first half of the movie Pleasantville and were thrilled to see their ideal life playing out on the big screen, only to stalk angrily out of the theatre after the flowers began to acquire color. Life just isn't "right" unless everything always stays the same, when everything is comfortably black and white. As we heard during the 2008 elections, this is what these crazy people think is "Real America"... a fantasy from TVLand.

And of course, when things aren't "right", when things are changing and upsetting to them, they scream bloody murder. They shout "traitor", "communist", "Nazi", "socialist", and worse. Why? It's certainly not because they understand the dictionary meaning of these words, it is what they represent. They represent "wrong"; they represent radicals, upsetters of the status quo, people and ideas that uproot the very foundation of their beliefs. These are not actual descriptors of liberals or Obama himself; they are epithets of fury cast to label what they cannot describe, what doesn't fit their tidy world of make-believe. They see swarming demons in the mist, and unable to cognitively accept what they are seeing, seek more familiar terms to describe the indescribable. They are quite literally being driven mad by the demons they feel are attacking them from all sides: and they are doubly maddened because they know they are losing.

Which is why we must be ever more vigilant for the wild animals these people will more and more closely resemble in the coming months. As every shred of what they thought was true about the world is shown to be false... that Stepford-like perfection of exclusivity and blind obedience to authority, the rightness of class, racial and income inequality, the belief that they are God's Chosen laying a path for His return... they will become more virulent, more irrational, more strident. And more violent.

Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, Coulter, and all the rest make today much, much different than the upheaval and violence of the 60's. Here we have a well-armed, in many cases military-trained group of people who feel marginalized, threatened, and convinced that not only their own government, but their own NEIGHBORS, are a danger to them and their way of life. They will do everything they can to stay in their fantasyland, and they are willing to say and do anything they feel is necessary to maintain their Pleasantville lives.

Add to this a fatalistic radicalism from a bastardized and hardly-recognizable version of Christianity that would have Jesus throwing up His hands in disgust, and you have a recipe for suicide bombers, snipers, "citizen militias" armed with military-grade weaponry, lynchings, vandalism, and worse. Thanks to extreme-right-wing talk radio and Fox, we have our own al-Queda, whipped into a frenzy of hatred and unremitting anger. And this time, they are not "foreigners" with dark skin and funny accents. They are our neighbors, and they see US as targets.

This, my fellow Real Americans, is what we are dealing with now. And this will go soon from words, to actions. At any time, and I fear it will be sooner rather than later. What will we do to protect ourselves, our families, and the country (the Real one, not their dystopian fantasy one) we love?

In the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, as the Genesis planet was collapsing all around them, Kirk and the Klingon commander were locked in a deadly struggle. The planet was falling apart, boiling lava spewed everywhere, and for a moment, the Klingon slipped and fell off the edge of a precipice, grabbing on with one hand. Kirk, feeling compassion for his enemy, reached out to try to pull him back up. Instead, the Klingon grabbed Kirk, and began to pull him over the edge with him. Realizing that the Klingon would rather kill them both than see Kirk live, Kirk finally makes his decision: he sits back, raises his boot, and repeatedly kicks the Klingon in the face until he loses his grip and falls into the lava below.

With each kick, Kirk says, "I"...(kick)..."have had ENOUGH"...(kick)..."of YOU!!!"...(kick, scream, toasted Klingon)

With this latest demonstration of ultra-right-wing crazy, I am there. I am done trying to reason or cajole these people. I am past trying to ignore their tantrums. I am finished trying to convince them with facts or subtle argument. I know that nothing I say, not even the evidence of their own eyes and ears, will change their un-American behavior. These are Klingons. I am Kirk. I am ready to say to these people:


We must remember, these people are still our fellow citizens, but this simply must stop. Our stability as a nation depends on it. And so, with as much love and compassion as you can muster:

When Real Americans go into battle on Fox against a Malkin or a Hannity, look them in the eye and say, "I. HAVE. HAD. ENOUGH. OF. YOU!!!"

When Real Americans confront right-wingers at rallys, townhalls, and protests, we must loudly proclaim, "I. HAVE. HAD. ENOUGH. OF. YOU!!!"

When Real Americans see "Servants of God" use the pulpit to spread hate and lies, denounce their hypocrisy with, "I. HAVE. HAD. ENOUGH. OF. YOU!!!"

When Real Americans hear their elected leaders repeat talking points from hate-radio and Fox to spread fear and confusion, call them out with, "I. HAVE. HAD. ENOUGH. OF. YOU!!!"

When Real Americans are faced with their neighbors ranting in church, at work, at sporting events, at the grocery store, and in our schools, speak out, "I. HAVE. HAD. ENOUGH. OF. YOU!!!"

And perhaps hardest of all... when Real Americans sit down to eat with their families, or go out with their friends, and they begin spewing the lies, hypocrisies, and hate, we must screw up our courage and lovingly but firmly tell them, "I. HAVE. HAD. ENOUGH. OF. YOU!!!"

Are you there? Are you Kirk too? Are you ready to say ENOUGH!?!?!?

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(revised and edited from original... thanks for the suggestions, WildRocket!)