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.