Saturday, December 6, 2008


I’ve been considering how much money I’d have to lose for my employer through carelessness, recklessness, or poor decision making before I’d find myself out of a job. I’m pretty sure that amount would be in the four-figure range—probably in the lower end of the four-figure range. Maybe including a decimal point.

So the question in my mind is how come the same CEOs who ran their companies into the ground are back on capital hill begging for bailout money. And I’m not just talking about auto execs—I’m talking about the banks and finance companies, too. How can so many rich guys screw up so badly and keep their jobs? It doesn’t make sense.

At least, it doesn’t make sense if you believe that the same rules apply to the rich as to the middle-class and the poor in this country. And, of course, they don’t.

While debate continues on Capitol Hill about bailing out the auto industry, it’s irksome to keep hearing people talk about how the auto companies have made poor decisions. The companies haven’t made poor decisions—the auto executives have.

Whoever put the windshield in my Taurus did a fine job. It hasn’t leaked once. And the conscientious auto workers who fastened down the seat belts and put in the air bags may save my life some day. They haven’t done anything wrong. Nor are the hundreds of thousands of other auto workers, parts manufacturers, and suppliers responsible in any way for the mess in the industry. But they’re the ones in danger of losing their jobs. (And not just their jobs—their careers. If the auto industry folds, where are they going to go to market their special skills? Korea?)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the auto executives have been making irresponsible decisions for decades. Every time gas prices went up, they mumbled about fuel economy and made a few modest gestures toward building more fuel-efficient cars. Fuel prices went down, and suddenly the highways were bumper-to-bumper with gas-guzzling SUVs. Greenhouse gases and the ozone layer be damned—there was money to be made!

Even from an economic standpoint—never mind the environment—it made sense to think ahead to a time when, inevitably, the price of oil would go up again. The least sensitivity to cultural trends should have made it obvious that more and more people in this country are serious about trying to reduce their “carbon footprint.” We’ve been through recessions before: people in charge of marketing the biggest-ticket item in most people’s budget, aside from their homes, should have been able to foresee a time when demand would be down—way down—at least for awhile. And all the innovations those foreign manufacturers were coming up with—did our domestic auto execs think we consumers wouldn’t notice?

So I’m in favor of bailing out all those skilled and dedicated auto workers and the employees of the companies that depend on them. We have to do that. But first, it only makes sense that Congress should tell each of the companies they bail out that the individuals who drove them into a ditch need to hit the road.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Righteous Radicalism

I was talking to my right-leaning son yesterday about a friend of his who tilts decidedly toward the left. This friend spent much of the past year as a volunteer for the Obama campaign, mostly in the South. He came back with stories to tell, such as this one.

Map in hand of the locations he was supposed to visit, he went to a remote, rural home to distribute literature. Wearing his Obama button, he drove up in his second-hand automobile festooned with Obama stickers, only to find a convivial gathering of KKK members getting ready for a barbeque. He made his excuses and backed away as quickly as he could, figuring that his time would be better spent elsewhere.

For me, a child of the sixties, that story brought back memories. I clearly remember the time in 1964 when three voter-registration volunteers became martyrs to the cause in rural Mississippi. I’m glad the nature of our prejudice has changed, and I rejoice in the fact that there are still young people ready to take time out from their everyday lives to work for something they believe in.

In the course of the conversation, my son said, “This whole Obama thing must have been kind of like it was in the sixties,” and that got me thinking.

Many people think of the sixties as a time when the young and young-at-heart indulged in drugs, sex, and outrageous displays of disrespect toward symbols of “the establishment.” That’s not how I remember it.

The radicalism of the sixties began at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where eloquent student leaders got fed up with administrators and politicians telling them how to think and what to say. It was a free-speech movement, which had a natural affinity for the emerging civil rights movement; both later merged with what I now believe was a righteous indignation against a horrific, pointless war that was being fought in wrong way and the wrong place. (Sound familiar?)

In the case of Vietnam, of course, the indignation was unjustly directed at the courageous soldiers who fought for their country, rather than the politicians who sent them there.

It just so happens that Berkeley is just across the bay from Haight-Ashbury, where some of society’s dropouts (every generation has them) were dropping acid, burning flags, and generally behaving outrageously. They sort of appropriated the “freedom” message of their more academic brothers and sisters, and over time, the two became fused in the public consciousness.

Ergo, when my sons first asked me, some years ago, if I was a hippie, I didn’t quite know what to say. I wore headbands and “love beads,” but I never dropped acid. In April of 1968, I took part in a protest march in Seattle—one of hundreds that were happening all over the country in response to the murder of Martin Luther King; but I had no particular interest in Woodstock rock. I understand now that I was not a hippie, but I was a kind of wanna-be radical—one who was born maybe just a little too late and too far away from where things were happening to feel I could make a difference.

But I admired those who had the courage to protest and sometimes lay their lives on the line for righteous reasons.

I still do.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

An Attitude of Gratitude

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. – G.K. Chesterton

For some of us in America, Thanksgiving is a quasi-religious holiday, a day for the lengthiest and most earnest of prayers before the family feast. For others, it’s the kickoff to the annual season of extravagance—a time when a great abundance of food, money, and hearty good wishes are expended and consumed.

This year, with the dismal economic situation being what it is, there’s a lot of talk about cutting back. Indeed, for the over 1 million people in the U.S. who have lost their jobs in 2008, there may be no choice in the matter. So maybe this is the time to suggest something I’ve thought about for the past several years: making Thanksgiving synonymous with National Mental Health Day.

As wise people have known for millennia, thankfulness is good for you. Like the Golden Rule, the old adage “Count your blessings” has long been a commonly recommended folk remedy for much of what ails us. Since the 1950s and ‘60s, when social scientists began in earnest studying people’s attitudes and behavior, there have been many reports that suggest a link between happiness and longevity.

And I submit that happiness is impossible without gratitude. (Can you think of anyone you know who is both happy and un-grateful—who cheerfully focuses attention day after day on the bad things that have happened or the wrongs that others have done?)

With the help of imaging techniques (such as PET scans), scientists can now actually see the effects that certain moods or types of thinking have on the brain. They know that thinking about what we have, rather than lamenting about what we don't have, actually changes both the chemistry and the physiology of the brain. The thoughts we habitually think reinforce patterns in our brain cells that make it easier to keep thinking the same kinds of thoughts—positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, angry or tolerant.

But the nice thing about all that is that, any time we choose, we can literally change our mind.

So along with the tryptophan we get with our turkey (which makes us nod off after dinner), I suggest that we all dose ourselves this day with a little serotonin, the chemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. It’s available, free of charge, for simply choosing to shout or whisper, aloud or in our heart of hearts, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Loving Sarah Palin

We find comfort among those who agree with us—growth among those who don't.
—Frank A. Clark

A reader pointed out to me yesterday that my recent remarks about Sarah Palin do not illustrate the “unconditional positive regard” (UPR) that I’ve been advocating to help heal the bipartisan divide in this country. I have to admit that UPR has not been high on the list of feelings I’ve had toward the governor of Alaska since she first came to my attention in August. So today I’m starting a program of attitude adjustment.

Sarah, I love your glasses. And your kids are adorable.

There—I feel better already! Now that we’ve dodged the bullet and are in no immediate danger of a Palin presidency, I can afford to be magnanimous.

In all seriousness, though, I’d really like to be able to start talking politics with Republicans, libertarians, and conservatives, as well as those who are left of my position on the hypothetical spectrum of political attitudes. (Yes, there are some of those!) For most of my adult life, it’s generally been impossible to really converse with Americans of different political persuasions without risking a relationship. Maybe that’s why Congress has so often been too bogged down in controversy to take positive action and why recent administrations have degenerated into extremism.

One thing we may all be able to agree on is that our country is at the brink of something very new and different in terms of politics. It’s more than just a swing of the pendulum—it’s a whole new clock. When things change dramatically—whether in our personal lives or in politics—we have two choices: 1) try to settle back into our old comfort zones and restore our feeling of “normalcy” as quickly as possible, or 2) embrace change and try to use it to move forward.

I propose that we try to move forward.

In a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan made the following observation:

“There is joy to be had in being out of power. You don’t have to defend stupid decisions anymore. You get to criticize with complete abandon. This is the pleasurable side of what the donkey knows, which is that it’s easier to knock over the barn than build it.”

With all due respect to Ms. Noonan, I’d like to suggest that—donkeys or elephants—we avoid knocking over the barn and try instead to make room in it for all of us.

Here are my final thoughts on the subject of Sarah Palin: I think her selection as a vice presidential candidate was one of those “stupid decisions” that many conservatives thought they had to defend. She’s simply not qualified—and there’s no shame in that. Neither am I. In all probability, neither are you. Very, very few people have the unique combination of knowledge, experience, intelligence, and personality to run this country and be a major player on the world stage.

Ms. Palin is bright, personable, and fiercely loyal to her convictions—all traits that I admire. I really don’t blame her for her down-home populism, which plays well in Kansas, or for being firmly planted to the right side in a long-established culture war that she embraced but did not create.

I do blame her for confusing Alaska with the United States and not knowing her limitations. But so long as she is not a candidate for high national office, there’s room in this barn for both of us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sarah Palin's Constituency

There's a brief human interest story on the wires this morning about Sarah Palin at a turkey farm in Alaska, where she gave one lucky bird the traditional gubernatorial "pardon." As she prattled on about how much "fun" she was having, a general blood-letting was going on in the background, as the un-lucky, un-pardoned birds met violent ends.

If there is such a thing as avian loyalty, one might expect that next time she runs for office, Ms. Palin will have the vote of at least one turkey in Alaska. That's understandable.

What I fail to understand is the reasoning of all those other turkeys who voted for her last time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ubiquitous Computing

My heart goes out to Barack Obama. Apparently he is urgently advised (though not, strictly speaking, required) to give up his beloved BlackBerry for the duration of his presidency. When he takes office, he’ll be required by law to preserve all his correspondence (electronic and otherwise)—and besides, a cell phone can be traced and could present a security risk.

I’ve only owned a smart phone for a few weeks, but already I’m at a loss to remember how I lived without it—and I’m not nearly as busy as the president. How will he know whether or not to carry an umbrella when he leaves the White House? If he’s stuck in a meeting during an important basketball game, how’s he going to know the score? What’s he going to do with himself if he’s stuck in the bathroom—or wants to be? (Even presidents need a little time out now and then.) It’s easier to sneak a cell phone into the can than a pile of newspapers.

Oh, sure—he can look out the window to check the weather. He’ll be surrounded by aids at all times who can tell him basketball scores. And if the president wants to have every bathroom in Washington stocked with new magazines, who’s going to begrudge him the right?

The problem is that personal computing has become so . . . well, personal. As anyone who owns a smart phone can attest, that little hand-held device quickly becomes an extension of your body and brain—essential for organization and communication. Hooking up to a personal computer almost instantly changes the way you do things in very fundamental ways. And it’s addictive to be able to scroll through the menu items, checking email, headlines, tasks, and appointment calendar—all with the touch of a finger. (I’m an amateur at this, but I’ve been known to do all four while stopped at a long red light.)

It can be persuasively argued that Barack Obama’s comfort and sophistication with the world of ubiquitous computing (or “UC,” as it’s called in the technology world) was a big factor in his successful campaign. Many of those who voted for him never saw an ad on television and followed the events of the campaign, as I did, on a hand-held device. What an irony that, as an individual, he may have to go back to the dark ages (circa 2002) and rely only on his organic brain and a paper planner during the time he’s in charge of the country!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Dark Ages

As I write this, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is preparing to dock with the international space station. There astronauts, scientists, and engineers will perform new feats and experiments that will further advance human knowledge.

Every time science takes another leap forward like this, I’m reminded of Galileo, whose teachings about the solar system got him in trouble with the Catholic Church. Under house arrest for the last decade of his life, he was forbidden to communicate with the outside world lest he infect others with his revolutionary (and accurate) ideas. Even at that, due to the money and influence of his family, he fared a good deal better than his contemporary, Giordano Bruno, who was periodically tortured in prison during the last decade of his life, then burned at the stake for his failure to recant his heretical teachings—including that insidious notion that the earth revolves around the sun.

It’s a very good thing for Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and other Catholics in Congress that the church has gotten out of the habit of burning people at the stake. However, some Catholic bishops are pressuring priests to punish and publicly humiliate Catholic politicians by refusing them the sacrament of communion—not because of any actions they may have committed but because of their beliefs (or in some cases, because of assumptions said bishops have made regarding their beliefs).

This situation raises some interesting questions regarding science, sociology, and the role of religion in modern affairs.

The issues involved, of course, are abortion and related matters, such as the experimental use of embryonic stem cells. The position of the Catholic Church (and other churches, as well) is that abortion is an absolute evil and—by extension—that all believers should try to prevent and condemn these practices.

Here’s the irony: by virtue of its opposition to all types of birth control and comprehensive sex education, the Catholic Church probably does more to promote the practice of abortion than any other institution on earth—not to mention other evils, such as starvation and infant mortality in Third World countries.

Someone needs to tell the Pope, I guess, that just telling people not to have sex usually doesn’t work.

But back to the subject of abortion. As Barack Obama has said regarding his own position, nobody is in favor of abortion. To be “pro-choice” is not to be “pro-abortion.” It is simply to acknowledge two obvious facts: 1) that making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away, and 2) that there is—and should be—a big difference between “illegal” and “immoral.”

I happen to believe that smoking—poisoning one’s own lungs and the air others breathe—is immoral. I don’t think the federal government should address the problem by making smoking illegal. This is a social problem that should be and has been addressed through education, raising public awareness, and providing support to people who are addicted to nicotine. As a result of these measures, the Center for Disease Control recently announced that the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped below 20% for the first time.

Similarly, abortion is a complex social issue that needs to be addressed through scientific, social, and ethical discussions by educated people--not those who are hampered by simplistic, “either-or” thinking. Catholic clergy who subscribe to the notion that politicians who recognize the complexity of the issue should be “punished” by being denied communion are betraying both ignorance and arrogance—the same traits that inspired their predecessors during the Dark Ages to torture and kill those who disagreed with them.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


It’s the nature of language to evolve, but I sometimes mourn the transformation of good words that have wandered—even in my lifetime—far from the meanings they once had. Take the word “gay,” for example: once it meant “happy,” but now it can’t be used in that context without causing either consternation or confusion.

Another such word is “conservative.” When did it stop meaning either 1) “cautious” or 2) “inclined to preserve or conserve” something? This good word has been appropriated by some of the most radical, extremist elements in our society to describe attitudes and actions that are anything but “conservative” in the original sense of the word—groups from the KKK to the NRA to the “religious right.”

Somehow, instead of “conservative” Republicans and “conservative” Democrats—as well as moderate and liberal versions of both—we now seem to have only “conservative” Republicans and “liberal” Democrats. All these words—“conservative,” “liberal,” “Republican,” and “Democrat"—have become so laden with unwonted meanings and assumptions that I can no longer use any of them to describe myself. I now call myself “Independent”—which for many people seems to mean “uncommitted,” “wishy-washy,” or even “sneaky” and unwilling to disclose one’s true feelings. In today’s political climate—which has become so polarized and adversarial—you just can’t win.

Sometimes I’d like to call myself “conservative.” I believe in being cautious and try to think before I act. I recycle trash and believe in conserving resources. I try to conserve energy for dealing with the things that really matter. But I certainly wouldn’t want to be mistaken for anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, or fundamentalist in my beliefs. I can’t call myself “conservative” without being misunderstood, any more than—cheerful soul that I am—I can call myself “gay.”

In the aftermath of a rather contentious election cycle, I’d like to propose that those of us who like to discuss these things quit calling ourselves—or each other—anything at all. When it comes to complex matters such as politics and economics, labels tend only to oversimplify and obscure meaning. My hunch is that the solutions to our collective problems—nationally and internationally—will not be found among the most cherished beliefs of the so-called “conservatives,” the so-called “liberals,” or even the so-called “independents.” They will be found by those willing to listen to others, compromise when necessary, and practice what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Root of All Evil

I am opposed to the use of public funds for private education. –Jonathan Kozol

They say money is the root of all evil. In education, it’s lack of money that drives most of the serious problems and shocking inequities that really need to be corrected. With an educational funding system that is heavily based on local property taxes, schools in rich neighborhoods are rich and schools in poor neighborhoods are poor.

This is the reality in America today: Children from the suburbs can enjoy learning in clean, cheerful, well-equipped schools with plenty of books; experienced, well-paid teachers who have ample opportunities for professional development; and elective classes that help develop individual talents in the arts, academic clubs, or athletics. Many children in inner cities and rural areas go to school in unsafe buildings with inadequate numbers of outdated books; have little or no access to computers or other necessary equipment; spend their days in overcrowded classrooms staffed by underpaid, discouraged teachers; and enjoy no opportunities to participate in elective classes such as band, leadership, or PE.

How does this relate to the current national choice of political leaders? John McCain is in favor of extending this shameful system of educational apartheid; Barack Obama has good ideas for fixing it.

John McCain is in favor of school vouchers, charter schools, and home schooling. The fact is that all three of these initiatives—so popular among many who call themselves social conservatives—would only make matters worse.

A national system of school vouchers would channel public money for education not to the schools that need it but to parents who don’t. If a school is in trouble due to lack of money, a voucher system would simply allow families to take their support and their resources elsewhere. The poorer schools would continue to punish their children for being poor while those marginally more fortunate would become overcrowded. The sensible way to go about solving these problems is to provide adequate funding for all schools—and that’s something the current Republican leadership is reluctant to do.

Publicly funded charter schools are all too often another means of segregating the rich from the poor, allowing districts that have the resources to establish satellite schools that can be and often are selective and discriminatory in terms of which students are allowed to attend. Even the best charter schools tend to have a different philosophy from that which has always been the foundation of American education: educating the whole child. The curricula in many of these schools are narrowly focused on particular areas, such as science and engineering, performing arts, or business. It is certainly the prerogative of families to allow their children to “major” in particular subjects at the expense of others. However, just as with religious education, if parents choose to provide their children with alternative educational opportunities—those that differ from our agreed-upon public mandate for a broad, general education—then they should not receive public funds for doing so.

As an educator, I’ve known many home-schooled children. A few are fabulously successful—those who happen to have extremely well educated, highly motivated, and generally affluent parents who can provide their children with plenty of enriching experiences. Many others, however, arrive at adulthood handicapped by poor language, math, and social skills. Rather than encouraging parents to opt out of the public school system, we should fix the real problems in education that cause many parents to view all public schools as inherently inadequate.

Barack Obama’s focus in education would not be on making it cost-effective for privileged families to opt out but rather on helping all school districts meet the highest standards. His administration would focus on the two areas that research has shown to pay the biggest dividends in terms of student performance: early childhood education and reduced class sizes.

The biggest obstacle to improving American education in the past few decades has been a cultural problem that plagues every aspect of life in this country: a fundamentally oppositional, antagonistic taking of sides, which results in combat rather than collaboration.

This more than anything gives me hope that Barack Obama can help revitalize education: his ability to bring together people of many different persuasions in a spirit of respect and cooperation that focuses on solving problems, not defeating opponents. It’s the difference between seeking a win-win situation and a seeking a win-lose situation. In education, if anyone “loses,” it’s the children.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Showing Up

Eighty percent of success is just showing up. – Woody Allen

In the short time he’s had a central role on the national stage, it certainly seems like John McCain has developed a habit of not showing up—or trying not to.

First, he tried to cancel the first presidential debate with Barack Obama, citing the urgency of the national economic crisis. Then he cancelled on David Letterman at the last minute (much to his subsequent regret), only to be busted a few minutes later getting his makeup done in Katie Couric’s studio. Just yesterday, he cancelled two appearances in Pennsylvania due to weather (although Obama kept his promise to the 9,000 supporters who were willing to wait in the icy rain to hear him speak).

As polls indicated that his popularity was dropping last week, McCain announced that he doesn’t plan to show up at his own election watch party. What kind of a message does that send to the hundreds of people who (for reasons that are beyond me) have faithfully followed him, believed in him, and held out every hope for his success? Doesn’t he at least owe them the courtesy of being there?

Clearly, courtesy is not an attribute of John McCain, as evidenced by his habitual rudeness to his opponent during this campaign. One can only imagine what effect it could have on American diplomatic relations if, as president, he failed to show at a summit of world leaders (or referred to one of them, dismissively, as “that one!”).

America needs a president who behaves like an adult—who thinks with his mind, not his emotions. In the unrelenting spotlight of a national campaign, the “Maverick of the Senate” has shown himself to be impulsive, erratic, and ultimately untrustworthy.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Negative Ads

This morning, General Colin Powell spoke eloquently for those of us who have had it with John McCain’s shameful, dishonest, and desperate attempts to discredit Barack Obama as a person.

To criticism about his blatant smear campaign, McCain has complained that he, too, has been the object of negative ads. But let’s face it: the term “negative” covers a lot of territory.

To suggest that Obama is un-American, unpatriotic, un-Christian, or untrustworthy is to appeal to the basest elements in American society. Deliberately using emotionally loaded terms like “terrorists,” “dangerous,” and “socialist” to evoke fear, hatred, and distrust—and to tolerate expressions of disdain and violence at Republican rallies—is dishonest and irresponsible.

By contrast, most of the Democrats’ “negative” ads have focused more on the issues than the opposing candidate. McCain has, in fact, voted with George Bush 90% of the time. McCain has never disputed that statement. He did, in fact, say (on “Black Monday,” no less) that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong.” And by pretty much any standard, his behavior in recent weeks can be described as “erratic”; he’s changed course many times on issues from how to address the economic meltdown to whether or not to attend a scheduled debate with Barack Obama—or, more famously, David Letterman.

The Democratic campaign is notable for the issues that haven’t been raised and the ads that haven’t been produced. Nothing’s been said, for example, about how the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter might reflect on the governor’s attitudes about sex education. Relatively little has been made of John McCain’s association with Charles Keating or G. Gordon Liddy. For the most part, the Democratic campaign has allowed unclear or contradictory arguments by McCain and Palin to be evaluated on their own merits (or lack thereof) by the public, while Obama focuses on finding real solutions to critical problems.

I’d like to think it won’t matter after the votes are counted—but it will. The world is watching. Clips are being broadcast in China and Saudi Arabia and Great Britain just as they are in California and New Jersey. The reputation of America—already so tarnished and so negative—is forming for the next phase of our international relations—which will require cooperation on issues from the world economy to containment of nuclear weapons. The next president will need support at home to bring about the cultural shifts necessary to salvage the economy, slow global climate change, improve education, and make health care available to everyone.

Given the negative impact his tactics have had on his campaign, there seems to be some hope that McCain will learn from his mistakes and stick to the issues from now on. Clearly, it’s time for him to start doing what he’s claimed to be doing all along—putting America first.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The New Tickets

Based on the commentaries now circulating after last night's presidential debate, it seems that we have four Joe's running for office: Joe Cool, Joe Biden, Joe "Six-Pack" Palin, and Joe the Plummer.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like any one of them stands a better chance of being elected than John McCain.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Change We Need

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. - Barack Obama

As John McCain’s so-called “campaign” continues to degenerate to a series of unfounded, vitriolic, and inflammatory accusations against Barack Obama as a person, perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on the one thing both sides seem to agree on: change is needed. That, at least, is an idea that seems to resonate.

So what kind of change do we need?

Let's begin by reminding ourselves that when a complex problem needs to be solved, there are virtually always more than two ways to go about it. Unfortunately, here in America, our democracy is firmly locked into a two-party system. Anyone outside the two mainstream organizations who makes a serious run for public office is viewed in one of two ways: a hopelessly unrealistic idealist (at best) or a crackpot who can’t fit into any of the established niches (at worst).

There have been times when this either-or system seemed to work well—usually when the country has been threatened by outside forces and, like a fractious family, came together in a spirit of “one-for-all-and-all-for-one.” That happened during World War II and, perhaps most recently, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

During times of relative peace and prosperity, however, we Americans tend to be led around by the nose by people—be they Presidents or pastors—who are passionate, or even fanatical, about one idea. Everyone is labeled either “pro” or “con,” “right” or “wrong,” “with us” or “agin us.” When things go wrong—as they most certainly have, in every aspect of public life, in recent years—we waste precious time and resources laying blame and trying to defend the old, tired ideas espoused by our own party.

So here’s the change we need: a president who’s not a traditional Democrat or Republican. Who brainstorms with anyone who has the brains, background, and creativity to offer viable solutions. Who can build consensus. Who can inspire ordinary people to participate in whatever way they can, large or small. Who is skilled at listening to all sides of an argument and forging a compromise that’s better than the status quo and that everyone can live with.

Focusing on one idea is a convenient substitute for thinking, and stirring up hate and contempt for people with different points of view is much easier than doing the intellectual work necessary to solve problems. Any lack of progress can be blamed on those idiots on other side of the equation who persist in not seeing things our way.

So as a nation, we need to stop being defensive, blaming others for our mistakes, and avoiding responsibility. We need to grow up. And we need a leader who inspires us to do that.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Palling Around"

Boy, it’s a good thing I’m not running for public office. I’ve worked in the same building since 1991, with roughly the same 140 or so adults—give or take a few who’ve come and gone over the years. I know of some who’ve got skeletons in the closet, and I have my suspicions about some of the others.

I work with approximately 400 high school students every year—and an American high school is the world’s biggest melting pot. I know kids who’ve gone on to be doctors, lawyers, clerks, teachers, welders, business owners, and crooks. I’ve visited a few of them in jail. And that’s not to mention the clients I’ve met in private practice who, let’s face it, seldom seek me out because things are going well.

The likes of John McCain and his cronies (I’ll use that word because he seems to like it) could have a field day.

Barack Obama has been a volunteer social worker, student, lawyer, law professor, author, legislator, and Senator. I’m sure he’s met, talked with, and worked next to some real shady characters.

And all they come up with is William Ayers—a man who, regardless of what he may have done in his youth, has been a law-abiding citizen for decades now?

What about the economy? What about the war? What about the environment? What about energy independence? What about America’s reputation and standing in the world?

While his opponent is addressing these issues through reason, persuasion, and consultation with experts, John McCain is deliberately stirring up anger, suspicion and hatred. His whole campaign strategy has become trying, by any means whatever, to tear down the reputation of a reputable man—and it’s obvious he doesn’t care who he hurts in the process.

Yes, sadly it’s true. Barack Obama has collaborated with a dishonest, deluded, and destructive man. He met him at work in the United States Senate. That man is John McCain.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Education of the Candidates

Sam's remarks, posted on MSNBC, took the words right out of my mouth. He wrote:

Subject: FW: Food for Thought

You are The Boss... which team would you hire?

With America facing historic debt, multiple war fronts, stumbling health care, a weakened dollar, all-time high prison population, skyrocketing Federal spending, mortgage crises, bank foreclosures, etc. etc., this is an unusually critical election year. The idea of “leadership” must be broadened from mere “experience” to include knowledge, learnedness and insight.

Let's look at the educational background of your two options:

Occidental College - Two years.
Columbia University - B.A. political science with a specialization in international relations.
Harvard - Juris Doctor (J.D.) Magna Cum Laude

& Biden:
University of Delaware - B.A. in history and B.A. in political science.
Syracuse University College of Law - Juris Doctor (J.D.)


United States Naval Academy - Class rank 894 of 899

& Palin:
Hawaii Pacific University - 1 semester
North Idaho College - 2 semesters - general study
University of Idaho - 2 semesters - journalism
Matanuska-Susitna College - 1 semester
University of Idaho - 3 semesters - B.A. in journalism

Now, which team are you going to hire ?

SAM, USA (Sent Thursday, September 18, 2008 11:26 AM)

Thanks, Sam!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

In a Pig's Eye

“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
–Robert Heinlein

While the McCane campaign seems to be stubbornly and obsessively stuck on the subject of pigs, I thought it might be an appropriate time to suggest that the Republican Party consider changing its mascot. Elephants are noble creatures, but pigs are so personable—and so quintessentially American. (How many elephants do you see in the American heartland?)

Just think how well the noble pig would represent the current character of the GOP.

First, pigs like to wallow in mud. In 2006,, which keeps track of these things, made the following statement about the National Republican Campaign Committee’s TV ads: “What stood out . . . was a pronounced tendency to be petty and personal, and sometimes careless with the facts.” That certainly seems to characterize the current presidential campaign, in which the Republicans wasted days trying to accuse Obama of sexism for using a common expression—one that McCain himself has used to make a similar point.

Second, pigs will swallow anything. Since “change” seems to be a concept that resonates with the American people right now (for obvious reasons), McCain has taken to calling himself an agent of change. As many others have pointed out, he’s voted for Bush’s initiatives more than 90% of the time. How can a man who’s always identified so closely with George Bush now expect us to believe that he’ll somehow turn the great ship of state around and do things differently? We’ve asked, Senator Obama has asked, and McCane has refused to answer. He’d rather talk about lipstick and pigs.

Finally, pigs don’t do a whole lot of thinking. Mr. McCane has stated that he doesn’t know much about the economy. Ms. Palin believes in creationism but not global warming. George Bush has long since admitted that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (signifying that our brave American troops have been fighting the battle against terrorism in the wrong place and for the wrong reasons). But McCane thinks we can “win” the Iraq war. (What does “win” mean?) We’ve got assertions, slogans, and quips from the Republicans. From Barack Obama, we’ve got deep analysis that can really help us understand what needs to be done for America and the world. (If you don’t believe me, read his book, The Audacity of Hope.)

Today’s Republican Party is the tight group of insiders that have brought the country to where it is today—economically, militarily, and in the eyes of the world. John McCane thinks he can teach this pig to sing.

To this, I say hog wash.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

You Don't Think She Wrote It, Do You?

In 1967, I was a winner in the Spokane area American Legion Oratorical Contest. I still remember the thesis statement of my seven-minute speech, which was based on a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

I spent weeks writing the speech, and untold hours repeating it in front of mirrors, before I nervously presented it to my high school debate class. The audience picked it apart. I rewrote parts of it, memorized the changes, and presented it again. By the time the contest rolled around, I could say it in my sleep. My biggest challenge was making the speech sound off-the-cuff, as though I was making impromptu remarks. When I stepped off the stage, I felt an enormous sense of triumph. Win or lose, I’d tackled a daunting task and pulled it off. Later, I would become a debate coach and talk other young people into torturing themselves in a similar fashion.

I know a thing or two about speech making. So after Sarah Palin’s triumphant performance at the Republican National Convention, it took me a few days to realize why some people were so impressed: they thought she wrote the speech!

Trust me, she didn’t.

Didn’t you hear the echoes? That speech was constructed by the same speech writers who have put the words into George Bush’s mouth for the past eight years and who are now the handlers for John McCain. Those clever little quips—the lipstick, the “actual responsibility”? Made by committee. (Barack Obama, by contrast, writes his own speeches, long hand, on yellow legal pads.)

As for delivery, I could have done it in a few days, too, if they’d had Teleprompters back then (or allowed them to be used in oratorical contests).

I’m not saying Sarah Palin didn’t do a bang-up job of presenting the speech. She’s a good little actress and delivered her lines well. And nature—in the form of Hurricane Gustav—gave her an extra day to practice.

But that doesn’t mean she’s qualified to be President—not even close.

Hitler made great speeches, too.

When we allow ourselves to be moved by political rhetoric, it’s important to consider the source.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Slinging Mud

When children fight, things can get ugly. They may call each other names, throw anything they can get their hands on, and scream so the other person can’t be heard. Responsible adults, seeing that kind of behavior, usually intervene to give the kids a little lesson in good citizenship.

But what can we do when the ruffians are allegedly adults? How can we protect our democracy when the hoodlums have the power to vote?

Since the presidential conventions, I’ve been browsing the editorials to see what people are saying. It’s the time for national dialogue about so many crucial issues that affect every one of us: the U.S. economy, jobs, education, health care, the health of the planet. After the editorials, come the comments. Some are reasonable remarks that contribute meaningful facts or insights. But all too often, they are vicious, hate-filled attacks on the person of a candidate the writer knows nothing about. Undoubtedly that’s occurring on both sides of the bipartisan debate. But it certainly seems to me that it’s people who call themselves Republicans who are doing most of the screaming and name calling.

Just in the past half hour, I found snide and sarcastic remarks alluding to Senator Obama’s religious affiliation, voting record, and occupations, as well as to Senator Biden’s ability connect with everyday people. In each case, it was obvious that the writer didn’t have the facts and was simply slinging incendiary words (like “Islamic”) and second hand rumors (like “All he’s ever done is . . .”). What about the energy problem? What about the war? What about bin Laden?

In a perfect world, all citizens who vote would be able to pass a little quiz to ensure that they at least have a few basic facts on which to base a decision. In the absence of such a policy, I guess those of us who think and reason have to work just a little bit harder to quietly speak our truth to those who don’t. Sometimes seeds of understanding can take root, even in hostile soil.