Thursday, December 31, 2009

Murder by State

The British government continues to express its outrage at the execution two days ago of its citizen, Akmal Shaikh, in China. Mr. Shaikh had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which often results in deranged thinking and impulsive actions.

While the U.S. government is generally quick to condemn other countries for human rights violations, our great nation has been appropriately silent in this case. We pretty much have to be. We execute people who are mentally ill all the time. Also children—or, rather, people who committed capital crimes as children. Also innocent people who get snared in the net of a ruthless and antiquated “justice” system.

Reliable DNA testing has only been available for a few years and is often not used because of costs. Nonetheless, it’s become routine for prisoners condemned to death or life in prison to be exonerated when someone, such as the Innocence Project, takes an interest in their case. In 2009 alone, nine death-row prisoners were shown to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Estimates of the number of inmates who are clinically diagnosed to be mentally ill (never mind those whose mental capabilities have never been assessed) range from a very modest 5 to 10% among death row inmates to about 33% in the general prison population. Children are routinely condemned to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.

Of the 52 people legally executed in the U.S. in 2009, how many were innocent or mentally ill? We’ll never know, of course.

What we do know is that as long as we as a nation condone execution, we cannot complain if our citizens abroad risk being subjected to the same rough justice.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Tribute to Senator Robert C. Byrd

I never met my paternal grandfather. He died of “black lung,” a disease of miners, when my father was only two years old. At 38, my grandmother was left with four young children and no income.

Back then, there were no disability benefits, no state assistance for families, no food stamps, no Social Security. Grandma survived and kept her children together by virtue of a strong back and fierce determination. She got a job in a commercial laundry, where she spent up to sixteen hours a day standing on a concrete floor, steaming and pressing bedding for hotels and clothing for those wealthy enough to afford the service. She ended up with arthritic knees and varicose veins, but she never got so sick she couldn’t work.

Born in the coal mining country of West Virginia, Robert Byrd grew up knowing about hardship and desperation—about how important a job is to a family and how some jobs wear people out when they’re young. A man of compassion, Byrd has spent over fifty years in the Senate (and seven years in the House before that) speaking his mind, voting his conscience, and doing his best to make a hard life a little easier for folks. Representing one of the poorest states in the nation, he understands the need for reliable, affordable health care.

Senator Byrd is a man of integrity; that is to say, he’s consistent in upholding the principles in which he believes—including, to the greatest extent possible, states’ and individual rights. Sometimes, values clash, however, and people of integrity learn, grow, and change. Largely because of his commitment to states’ rights, Byrd joined in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After four more years of debate about principles of individual and human rights, however, he voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

An intelligent, educated man, he can tolerate uncertainty; intellectually honest, he’s able to both admit his own mistakes and embrace change when new evidence presents itself. He joined the anti-communist but rabidly racist Ku Klux Klan in his youth; he has never denied but often apologized for his support of prejudice and intolerance during that time. A supporter of freedom of and respect for organized religion, he also supports women’s reproductive rights. At 92, he’s probably about the only man in West Virginia who can get away with encouraging the coal industry to embrace the modern world by acknowledging the realities of climate change and relinquishing the practice of lopping off mountain tops to create open-pit mines.

Robert Byrd has always chosen being truthful over being “politically correct.” Yet since his career began in 1952, he’s never lost an election. He’s maintained a 98 percent attendance record in the Senate and cast nearly 20,000 votes. The people of his state don’t always agree with him, but clearly they respect the fact that he works hard in their behalf.

Of the many fallacies that pass for rational thinking in America these days, overgeneralization is one of the most popular. As part of America’s sharp turn toward cynicism in recent years, it’s become more fashionable than ever to lump all politicians together and tar them with same brush. However, politicians are like anyone else: there are cowards and heroes among them. As far as I’m concerned, Robert C. Byrd is one of the heroes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We the People

Draw a circle. Now draw another circle that intersects the first one. The result should be a figure that contains three spaces: the part which only belongs to the first circle, the part which only belongs to the second circle, and the part shared by both circles. You have just created a Venn diagram.

The Venn diagram is a great way of illustrating the concept of “me, you, and us”—or, if you will, “yours, mine, and ours.”

This is a central reality of human existence: as social creatures, there are parts of our experience that represent only our own interests, rights, and responsibilities. There are areas in which we have shared interests, rights, and responsibilities. And there are areas that belong to “you”—whoever “you” may be—and that are none of my business.

If we could all just get it straight which parts of life fall into which category, a great many of the world’s problems would be solved.

Concepts like compassion, morality, and responsibility can all be illustrated by use of a Venn diagram. We all decide what we believe to be “yours, mine, and ours” when—consciously or unconsciously—we answer questions like these:
  • To what extent is my life my own and nobody else’s?

  • How much should I care about other people’s feelings or well-being?

  • Am I responsible for trying to improve the lives of people I don’t know personally?

  • Should people protect the well-being of other living creatures—including the overall health of life on earth?

In a democracy, answers to questions like these motivate everything we do—including whether or not we choose to participate in government, and how. In America, that means deciding whether we are Democrat, Republican, L(l)ibertarian, or “other.”

The “other” category now includes those “tea-party conservatives” whose goals, if any, seem to be 1) to bring back the “Golden Years” of Bush-Cheney and 2) pay no taxes, no how, for nothin’, if possible.

Government represents the “us” part of the Venn diagram. It’s the way each family, community, or nation organizes itself for the good of the whole.

In the beginning, there was considerable debate among the nation’s founders about how “us” should be defined. Should it include only males? Only whites? Only the wealthy? If yes, what responsibility did these decision makers have toward others? We still struggle with the same questions:
  • Does a woman have a right to decide whether to bear a child?

  • Does a child who has lived here all her life but is not a citizen have a right to be educated?

  • Should public policies consider the needs of the poor and middle class as well as the rich?

The founders were not deluded—as many Americans seem to be today—into thinking that the documents they produced (The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) settled anything, once and for all. They knew that the principles of freedom and democracy they set forth in these documents would have to be studied, understood, adapted, and defended as long as the nation endures—that preserving them would require, to borrow a cliché, “eternal vigilance.”

In America, the government is “us.” To be anti-government in America is to be, in my opinion, anti-American. It puzzles me no end that the people most negative about the American government and its leaders are often those who go out of their way to call themselves “patriots.” By definition, patriots are those who love, support, and defend their country.

You can’t love your country without respecting its history and its government. You can’t support your country without supporting its leaders to the greatest extent possible. You can’t defend the country without actively participating.

Unfortunately, we all seem to remember all that only when the country is at war or under attack, as in the weeks after 9/11.

If only we could all be "patriots" during ordinary times--citizen-participants who choose our attitudes and actions for the good of the country and all its inhabitants.

In all of our millions and with all our wealth as a nation, just imagine what we could accomplish.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Climategate: A Mistake in Information Management

For two weeks beginning December 7 of this year, scientists and world leaders (as well as a few ignoramuses from Washington) are making their way to Copenhagen. As they struggle to find global solutions to the world-wide environmental crisis, right-wing critics in America are still nattering about some injudicious words taken out of context from emails sent years ago by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Hackers and thieves stole thousands of pages of material, selectively releasing tidbits that can be interpreted by the ill-informed to cast doubt on the enormous body of scientific knowledge supporting climate change. The timing of this sophisticated bit of intellectual terrorism—days before the largest and most important international climate summit in the history of the world—was no accident.

In his recent book, Denialism, Michael Specter says this of people who persist in disbelieving what rational and well-informed people know to be true: “they shun nuance and fear complexity.” That may be true of the consumers of misinformation; but those who manufacture it, popularize it, and profit from it are motivated by something more sinister than ignorance and fear: greed and/or the lust for power.

From what has so far been made public, it seems clear that the UEA scientists were concerned that fragmentary and incomplete information from their research could be used by climate-change deniers to overshadow conclusions based on years of good-faith scientific inquiry. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happening; ironically, however, discussion about whether and how to release these isolated facts has resulted in the whiff of a cover-up—which, in the minds of many, is enough to taint their entire body of evidence.

A favorite and very effective trick of those who manipulate public perception for financial or political gain is to find one or two instances out of many thousands and blow them out of proportion. When a gabby Acorn worker in Baltimore had a conversation with some sleazy visitors to her office that was recorded on tape, the result was an avalanche of criticism that crippled the entire organization. Besides encouraging poor people to vote (a practice that enrages many Republicans), Acorn is a community-service organization that aids the needy and homeless. When Congress cut off funding to the organization in a knee-jerk response to that one incident, things got even more desperate for thousands of people who need the kind of assistance Acorn provides.

The problem with the UEA emails is not information withheld by scientists. It’s mis-information deliberately manufactured and broadcast by people who stand to profit by public confusion. The problem for America and the world is how, in the “information age,” we can help people learn how and where to get accurate information—and whom to believe.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What's Good for the Environment 's Good for Business

In his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman talks as much about the realities of the world economy as he does about the purported subject of the book, global climate change. For those who may not have the book on their reading list, he's made the first two chapters available to anyone who may want to get a sense of what this very important and readable book is all about.

I don't believe anyone can speak with authority about economics or the environment without being familiar with Friedman's highly respected analyses. If you haven't read the book, enjoy!

In Whom We Trust

Happy 38th birthday to the Libertarians among us. The Libertarian Party was founded on December 11, 1971, and is now the largest “third” party in the United States. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, estimates conservatively that libertarians comprise anywhere from 13% to 20% of the American electorate. At the rate things are going, that means that people who identify as libertarians may soon outnumber Republicans, whose numbers seem to have been in the mid-20th percentile in recent months (depending, of course, on who you believe).

In talking about libertarians, it’s necessary to distinguish between those affiliated with the political party (spelled with a capital “L”) and those who “lean” libertarian (with a small “l”). Either way, this group is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in terms of the national discourse and decision making.

I’m no expert, but my sense is that in general, libertarians tend to be young, well-educated, and tech savvy. Highly resistant to being boxed and labeled, they fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media by communicating mostly on the Internet. Being generally anti-government, they tend not to brag about their influence; they seem to regard any necessary foray into politics the way a dairy farmer might think about mucking out the barn—as a distasteful but unavoidable part of the business of citizenry.

I find the rise of the libertarians both heartening and alarming. It is heartening because a viable third voice in this country may help us get past the colossal waste of time and energy represented by bipartisan posing and sniping. It’s alarming because I believe that the first principle of libertarianism—the primacy of the individual—is wrong. (More about that later, in what I hope will become a fruitful and mutually enlightening discussion.) The point here is that I, for one, will no longer talk about the American “two party” system. That expression is now antiquated and misleading.

No round-up of mainstream modern American thought would be complete without mention of a movement that is increasingly independent of traditional party affiliation and seems to be emerging as a new “party”: the fundamentalist Christian “conservatives.” With Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer, this group may eventually coalesce under the “Conservative Party” label, a group characterized by anti-intellectualism and magical thinking.

According to a recent biography, Ayn Rand, the ill-tempered, irascible defender of all things capitalist, often greeted new acquaintances with the question, “What are your premises?” Although based on her radical (and incorrect) belief that all decisions are based on reason, the question itself is important. Not knowing the answer is the basis of no end of pointless, existential conversations between people who think they’re talking about the same thing but really aren’t. (Case in point: When Republicans use the word “socialism,” they mean one thing; when Democrats use it, they mean something else entirely.)

Although her theories were greatly flawed by her ignorance and denial of the emotional aspects of decision making (a mistake that also created havoc in her personal life), Rand was correct in her belief that we can’t really understand “where people are coming from” if we don’t know the basic tenets of their philosophy—in other words, if we don’t know in what or whom they place their trust.

That said, for the sake of our ongoing discussion, here is a brief (and admittedly biased) summary of the main political movements in this country and their guiding principles:
  • Democrats believe in the People—in the collective ability of a group of well-informed and well-intentioned individuals to band together to protect what they value and to progress.

  • Republicans believe in the Market, which they believe to be impartial and benign but is really designed to empower and enrich the few at the expense of the many.

  • Libertarians believe in the individual, not as a member of a community but rather as a sovereign decision-maker free to act, as much as possible, without reference to the concerns or mores of the larger society.

  • Religious “Conservatives” believe in God, as well as in religious and political leaders who claim to speak for God.

Next: “We the People”

Friday, December 4, 2009

On Tiger: A Distinction Worth Making

The national obsession with a little fender-bender in Florida isn't the kind of thing I usually like to justify with a comment. However, Kathleen Parker's recent remarks about the Tiger Woods episode are worth noting: "This isn't breaking news," she points out. "This is breaking gossip."

Oh, that more among us could tell the difference!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Meaning of Words

Thanks to The Tarquin for this link, which provides thoughtful and much-needed clarification for some of the language being slung about in the public discourse these days.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World AIDS Day 2009

In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, about 33.2 million people were living with AIDS around the world—about 2.5 million of them children under 15. During that same year, about 2.5 million were infected with this highly preventable disease and about 2.1 million died.

To put that in perspective for Americans, that means that the number of people living with AIDS is about four times the population of New York City, with new cases every year about equal to the population of Houston. In the U.S. alone, it's estimated that well over a million people are living with AIDS with an additional 55,000 to 60,000 diagnosed every year.

In South Africa, the country hit hardest by the pandemic, the president has wised up and is taking positive action to address the AIDS problem. Meanwhile in America, I spoke just yesterday to a pregnant 15-year-old who was not aware that a condom might not only have prevented her pregnancy but also helped to protect her from STDs, including AIDS. She knew, of course, that abstinence would protect her; however, like many of the 1 in 3 U.S. girls who become pregnant at least once before their 20th birthday, she didn't think about that when it was time to make a choice.

In the U.S., there has been little public awareness or support for initiatives to address the AIDS epidemic for one main reason: thanks to political correctness, it's all but invisible. To read the obituaries in almost all American newspapers, you'd think no one ever dies of AIDS; rather, those who are infected die of pneumonia, cancer, or some other more socially acceptable disorder caused by AIDS. Partly because of our dysfunctional health care system and reporting laws that differ from state to state, some cases are never identified until a terminally ill patient reports to a hospital to die.

So on this day, I suggest that we consider a few ways to improve this situation. We can stop the nonsense about "abstinence only" sex education and resolve to give kids all the information they may need to protect themselves. (This doesn't mean telling kids to have sex, but it does mean acknowledging that no matter what we say, many won't choose abstinence.) In the same spirit of compassionate realism, we can support needle exchange programs. American Catholics can tell their newly politicized bishops that if they want to reduce the number of abortions in America, they should support measures to reduce the numbers of unwanted pregnancies. We can support health reform. And finally, we can work to reduce the kind of mean-spirited judgmentalism that may prevent AIDS-infected people from getting help and taking steps to protect others.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rights and Obligations: A Philosophical Foundation

I had an eye-opening conversation recently with one of my favorite political sparring partners, who observed that basic human “rights” can be viewed as either negative or positive.

In a free society, people should have rights not to have others interfere with certain freedoms: freedom of thought, of speech, of religion, of self-protection, etc. So far, so good. Most of us can agree that people have rights that shouldn’t be infringed by others who may want to limit or “negate” those freedoms.

But to my surprise, I learned that not everyone agrees that we also have rights to (as well as from) certain things. There are those who, like my respected dialectical opponent, believe that liberty involves freedom from being obligated to others. According to this logic, saying that one person is obligated to help another is antithetical to personal liberty, because it implies that the person in the helping position is not free to choose.

That’s true. If we have obligations to others, then we are not perfectly free to exercise unlimited personal choice where others are involved—and in my view, others are almost always involved. We can’t diminish ourselves or fail to use our talents and skills in a positive way without having a negative impact on others. I say that from a moral perspective, we are not free to choose not to consider others when we make decisions. As social creatures, we are inextricably bound to others in society.

This example came up in the course of the conversation: A person is seriously hurt, lying down and bleeding on the sidewalk. Does a passer-by have an obligation to help? Is he or she morally free to say no?

I say the passer-by has an obligation to help, to the best of his or her ability—to call for help, render first aid if trained to do so, even to offer solace and comfort until professional help arrives. To ignore the injured person would be morally wrong unless there is nothing at all the person can do without risking his or her own well being. (For example, if a stranger were bleeding, would I stanch the flow of blood with my bare hands? Probably not. Would I and should I put pressure on an artery if I had appropriate training and gloves to protect myself? Yes.)

Philosophical differences like these have a direct bearing on how people view matters of public policy, such as the current health care debate. I believe that as a society capable of offering its citizens optimum care, we have a moral obligation—long ignored—to provide universal health care opportunities. Those who have the attitude that we are not obligated to others may have a very different view.

In the USA, at least 45,000 people die every year for lack of access to health care. Fearful of running up bills they couldn’t hope to pay, many ignore symptoms until they are beyond help for a life-threatening condition. Others can’t afford routine screening tests, such as mammograms, or routine care for high blood-pressure, diabetes, or pregnancy. Millions are less healthy, happy, and productive than they ought to be because they can’t afford medical care that would reduce pain, increase energy, or otherwise improve quality of life.

Having people in our family, community, or country who are sick, dying, or chronically unwell affects everyone. This situation diminishes health and well-being for others (including care-givers) and deprives us all of the talents and contributions the unwell would otherwise provide. Because critical, emergency care is so much more expensive than preventive care, the 46 million uninsured in this country drive up health costs for everyone and put a significant dent in the national budget.

No one has seriously challenged analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and others that say that the current situation regarding health care in this country is unsustainable and that the bill now before Congress would reduce the Federal deficit. Those against it are, for the most part, those who are against any kind of change, positive or otherwise, period. (Is that what “conservative” means these days?) But many Americans—especially those fortunate enough to have affordable, comprehensive health insurance now—are essentially indifferent, their opinions informed only by ads or sound bites on their favorite TV or radio station.

As Americans, I say that we have a moral obligation to concern ourselves with the well-being of others, as citizens as well as individuals. For one thing, it’s really a matter of enlightened self-interest: it’s better to live in a country where people are healthy and happy and the economy works well for everyone than it is to live in a country with sickness, misery, and looming fiscal disaster. That’s a matter of practicality and should be, in itself, reason enough to support the kind of health reform now being debated in the nation’s capital.

But from a philosophical standpoint, as well, we all make a fundamentally moral decision, whether we are aware of it or not: We decide if we believe or do not believe that we are and ought to be “our brother’s keeper.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Goldilocks and the Libertarians

At the beginning of the primary season before the last election, I was just emerging from a long night of the soul with respect to politics. Literally in despair over the direction my country had been going for a long, long time, I began with little hope that anything could be done to really change it. It seemed that the anti-intellectual forces of social Darwinism that ensured dominance of the very rich and ferociously powerful were too strong ever to be defeated.

America was fighting wars for no reason, torturing prisoners in secret prisons, denying its responsibilities for global climate change, and fumbling its efforts to help its citizens in the aftermath of disasters like Katrina. Friends from abroad confirmed what I suspected about America’s image in the world: we were universally regarded with fear, contempt, and even pity, but rarely with respect. With the possible (and still puzzling) exception of Tony Blair, Bush didn’t seem to have many friends—and in Blair’s case, that friendship cost him his job.

Very familiar with the philosophy and work of Hillary Clinton, I had some hope that she would, if she could, inch the country back toward at least some grudging sense of purpose and responsibility. But could a woman really be elected in America? And could any coalition of reasonable, responsible people ever really change much of what had been so wrong for so long? It required a great leap of faith to even hope for any significant change.

Ever the optimist, though, I pasted a Hillary for President sticker on the rear end of my car and carried on with my life. It took a while for me and many others to come around to the realization that what we do, what we say, and who we vote for could really make a difference.

My work often brings me to college campuses, and as campaign signs began to proliferate, I began to see a lot of them there and elsewhere for some guy named Ron Paul. Who was Ron Paul? At first I was afraid he might be some kind of a spoiler, like Ralph Nader, whom I blame in part for the debacle of the 2000 election. But as I talked with a few people who sported those signs, I was puzzled by their lack of advocacy. People who pasted up Ron Paul signs didn’t seem to want to talk about their candidate; when asked, they’d shrug their shoulders and make some off-handed remark like, “If you don’t know, I really can’t explain it to you.”

The thing that was interesting about this was that those who sported Ron Paul buttons and signs seemed to have one thing in common, as near as I could tell—they were very, very bright. None of them seemed to think their candidate had any chance of winning the presidency, and being pragmatic, most probably held their nose (as one libertarian said to me) and voted for someone else in the end. However, Ron Paul made a significant showing in the primaries in almost every state, and in a close election, his votes could have skewed the results one way or the other.

Ron Paul and the libertarians are important—not because they’re likely to launch a convention in 2012 and storm the White House, but rather because they’re highly unlikely to do any such thing. Libertarians take pride in staying above the fray—in having, as they like to put it, “no dog in the fight” when it comes to politics. Being individualists, they prefer not to sully themselves by engaging in mudslinging in public arenas (and who can blame them?). Being intellectuals, they tend to communicate over the Internet and fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media. There they kibitz, mostly with each other, about the evils of government.

But like it or not, if you have more than two people in a long-term relationship, you’ve got “government” of one kind or another. And like it or not, the country is changing in a way that may make it impossible for libertarians to stay “above the fray.” In the next few election cycles, I think the libertarians will make a big difference.

First, as noted earlier, libertarians are no dummies. While they may be few in number, I suspect that they may represent a fairly significant percentage of intelligent, educated Americans who are socially and politically aware. They represent a brain trust, a sort of political secret weapon. If they continue to eschew the world of politics, they make a difference; if they decide to engage, the game will never be the same. People with power can’t avoid responsibility: if they use it or withhold it, they still affect the outcome of the enterprise.

Second, libertarians like to think of themselves—accurately, so some extent—as being somewhere off the spectrum of “right” to “left” political advocacy. They tend to side with the “right,” for example, when it comes to limiting taxes and big government. They tend to be “lefties,” however, when it comes to social issues. And they tend to put much more emphasis than either the right or the left on certain values, such as individual autonomy. As both the Republican and Democratic parties begin to splinter into rival factions—a new trend that may come to define this era in American political history—centrists of all kinds will begin to take on a degree of importance that far exceeds their numbers. (Just ask Senator Blanche Lincoln about that.)

Sometimes libertarians frustrate me because of their refusal to throw themselves behind important public initiatives, such as health reform. On the other hand, I definitely prefer their cerebral detachment and philosophical disinterestedness to hyper-emotional “teabag” Republicanism. I guess that’s why I currently define myself as a progressive Democrat: for my money, the libertarians are too intellectual, the Republicans are too emotional, and the Democrats are—just right!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palin and the Battle for the American Mind

This week, much of the media coverage has been all Sarah, as the former governor embarks on her triumphant victory lap around the country after publication of her book. Meanwhile, the news that will become history was happening in Washington, where Democrats in the Senate managed to move the nation one step closer to rectifying the situation that makes us No. 37 in the world in terms of public health according to the World Health Organization.

Palin’s been coy about her plans for the future, but nobody’s really fooled by her demure refusal to say what she plans to be doing in 2012. While some rational, responsible elected officials are busy working to solve America’s critical problems—the broken economy, the two wars, the antiquated health system, the crumbling infrastructure, the spiraling effects of environmental irresponsibility—Palin is preening for the cameras, pretending—and apparently actually believing—she has what it takes to be president. (Can anybody tell me—does she know yet whether Africa is a country or a continent?)

It’s disheartening that anyone—anyone at all—would take Palin (or her fellow rabble-rouser Glenn Beck) seriously as a candidate for public office. That as many as 20% of American adults do so is tragic and frightening. These entertainers represent exactly what we don’t need in this country or anywhere else in the world: people who don’t know the difference between thinking and emoting, who mistake populism for policy, and who think the end justifies the means when it comes to lying or deliberately stoking public fear and rage.

In her public appearances, there’s one sure way to tell if Palen’s either lying or talking about something she doesn’t know anything about: her mouth is moving. Since her book came out, staffers from John McCain’s campaign have been kept busy trying to correct the record on the many negative assertions she made about them in her book. Since her “death panels” rhetoric apparently didn’t play well in Peoria, she’s now making the ludicrous claim that under the proposed health reform legislation, those who don’t buy coverage could face jail time. When she’s not torturing the truth, she’s chanting the same mantra as all the other wing-nuts at the fringe: “No, no, no.” (And is there anything left of the old GOP but the fringe?)

You’ve got to hand it to her—Sarah knows how to grab a headline. And in America, people may choose to be willfully ignorant, negative, and mean spirited. It may not be morally right, but it’s legal.

Sarah will do what Sarah will do—and so will the rest of us. Every day, we make practical and moral choices about which books to buy, which TV stations to watch, and whether to “think” with our intellects or emotions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mob Psychology and Values Education

When I was in college, our highly competitive local hockey team was scheduled to play an equally successful Canadian team in a tie-breaking game near the end of the season. This was such a big deal at the time that news of the game had even penetrated my consciousness—and when it comes to sports, I generally live in an alternate universe. Tickets had been sold out for weeks, but a day or two before the game, a friend told me she’d been given two tickets and asked if I wanted to go. Sure, I thought, why not?

We arrived early, and as we waited outside for the doors to open, we chatted with an assortment of friendly people around us: a young couple with a toddler in a stroller, middle age couples, suit-clad business folks just off work on a Friday afternoon. After these many years, it’s eerie how well I remember some of these people; it’s like the almost preternatural recall some people have of the moments just before a car wreck.

The pleasant mood of gentile camaraderie continued as we all filed into the coliseum, picked up snacks, found our seats: people smiling, laughing, helping each other shrug out of their coats. So far, my friend and I were having a wonderful adventure.

Then the chatter over the loudspeakers rose to a crescendo, all eyes turned to the rink, and the players skated out onto the ice. The mood of the crowd changed instantly. One player shoved another with a stick, and the crowd roared. A fight broke out on the ice, and the crowd erupted. The good, kindly looking people around us began, literally, screaming for blood. Red-faced men, veins in their necks bulging, punching fists into the air; women screeching obscenities; almost everyone raging at one player or another, if not the referee. It seemed to take an hour for my friend and I to make our way to the end of the aisle and out the door. Then we stood outside on the sidewalk, in the quiet of a normal Friday evening, horrified at what we’d just witnessed.

From that day forward, a lot of things made sense to me: ancient Roman crowds in the Colosseum, the French Revolution, the Salem witchcraft trials. What I learned that day is something that must be understood in your gut, not in your head: like packs of animals, human beings can turn on a dime at the smell of blood.

Clearly this propensity for people to lose themselves—their individuality and personal consciousness—in a crowd has evolutionary advantages. In defense of the tribe, of the family, people forget themselves and willingly sacrifice their lives, if necessary, for the good of the whole. In the midst of a crisis, there is no time for reflection, and nature has provided a mechanism whereby rational thought can be shut down in favor of raw, unfiltered emotion.

Furthermore, in order to assure an ample supply of warriors to protect the community, nature has provided an assortment of hormones that, once released into the bloodstream, make us feel ecstatic and invincible. Simply put, it feels good to be swept away on a sea of emotion.

From rock concerts to religious revivals, hangings to hockey games, people gather together partly because, from a purely biological standpoint, it feels great to be in a crowd that’s emotionally charged up and focused on a common goal—whether that goal is a line on the turf or the slaughter of innocents. This is a fundamental feature of the human organism, and it hasn’t changed since our ancestors first started walking upright.

What has changed is our collective human experience and our ability to reflect on it. We can now ask ourselves questions like, “Is this right?” “Do I want to be a part of this?” We are capable of understanding—if only we stop to think about it—that just because something feels right, that doesn’t mean it is right, from either a factual or moral perspective.

We must start teaching this fundamental fact of human nature to our children. We must make it known that, sometimes, it’s our personal responsibility to detach ourselves from the crowd, to deliberately switch on the thought process, even to take the considerable risk of raising our voices in opposition. Such values education might not have prevented a 15-year-old’s homecoming dance from turning into hours of torture and gang rape—but then again, it might at least have inspired one of the many witnesses to call 911.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Role of Negative Emotions in a Positive Life

“Think positive!”

“Look on the bright side!”

“Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Our culture is filled with aphorisms encouraging us to choose positive over negative thinking. In general, that’s very good advice. Positive emotions—joy, peacefulness, satisfaction, love, optimism—are good for us, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Negative emotions—anger, depression, frustration, guilt, hate—are bad for us and those around us.

Doctors have known for decades that people who spend most of their time on the positive end of the emotional spectrum tend to be healthier (not to mention happier) and live longer than those who are chronically or habitually negative in their thinking.

So why hasn’t nature edited out those nasty, energy-tapping negative emotions? Why don’t we all walk around in a haze of happiness, contented as cows in a corn field?

Well, from an evolutionary point of view, if we didn’t have the capacity to react negatively to certain situations—to feel terror when threatened, anger when abused, and guilt when we’ve caused harm to others—we’d have died out as a species long ago. Negative emotions are necessary for us to know when something is seriously awry and do something about it.

Negative feelings are analogous to pain in the body. A person who can feel no physical pain (a condition that results from a rare genetic disorder) is in grave danger of dying very young of injuries the rest of us would instinctively avoid. Feeling no pain, they also feel no fear of things that could harm their bodies. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for these people to live normal, productive lives.

Similarly, people who live with chronic pain due to nerve disorders or injuries also tend to live diminished, distorted lives. Much of their energy is drained off every day in just the effort of coping with pain.

So to live well and be happy, we need to have physical pain in our lives—an optimum amount of pain, at the right times and for the right reasons. The same is true of the psychological “pain” caused by negative emotions.

In a healthy life, negative feelings operate like physical pain: alerting us to the existence of something that ought to be changed. Fear alerts us to danger and spurs us to action so we can avoid it. Anger helps us recognize less-than-ideal situations and relationships that ought to be changed. Guilt allows us to realize when we've done harm and either correct the situation or make amends. Without these kinds of feelings, growth and personal development would be very limited—especially in terms of interpersonal relationships.

These emotions are healthy—so long as they motivate us to do whatever needs to be done to correct the situation that’s causing them. But they can be bad if we fail to take corrective action or—worse yet—just choose to live our daily lives filled with fear, anger, guilt, or other negative thought patterns.

This is where personal choice comes in: Under usual circumstances, no one has to live life full of chronic, negative emotions. Those who do are like people who get up every morning and shoulder a backpack full of boulders: they go through their daily lives weighted down with feelings that rob their lives of joy, peace, good health, and good relationships. (As a counselor, I spend a good deal of my time encouraging people to “drop their rocks.”)

So in a positive life, negative emotions should serve as guideposts—letting us know when we’re off the path of safety and righteousness and showing us how to get back on track. They should not become permanent features of our lives. People who lead good, happy, productive lives—intentionally or not—develop certain skills for dealing with negative emotions:
  • Recognizing negative feelings, when they occur, as problems that need to be dealt with

  • Developing an action plan to resolve the problem(s) causing those negative feelings

  • Letting go of the fear, anger, guilt, resentment, frustration, etc., once action has been taken to deal with it

  • Avoiding people and situations that tend to stimulate chronic, unproductive negative emotions.

My favorite coffee mug reads, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” It’s amazing how much truth and wisdom can fit on the side of a cup!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Choosing How to Feel

We humans are endowed with a dual nature, capable of both responding emotionally to what we experience and also reasoning about it. These two ways of interacting with the world around us are not separate functions of the brain, neatly divided between, say, the left and right hemispheres. Rather, the entire brain is involved in any type of “thinking” we do.

Thus, as we apply reasoning to trying to understand or solve a problem, we have feelings about both the process itself and the conclusions we draw.

As an example, let’s say you’re thinking about buying a new car. If you decide to do it, you might feel pleasure, excitement, or (if you don’t need it or can’t afford it), guilt. If you decide not to buy it, you might feel regret, relief (at saving the money you might have spent), or aggravation (at having wasted your time). But before, during, and after you engage in the reasoning process, you will feel something.

Similarly, as we respond emotionally to our environment, we’re constantly thinking about how we feel. Prodded by joy, sorrow, affection, rage, pride, or guilt, we generally look around outside ourselves to see what’s causing us to feel that way. Here’s one area where we often tend to take a wrong turn. It’s natural but erroneous to assume that because we feel a certain way, some outside factor is “causing” us to feel that way.

As often as not, what stimulates an emotional feeling is internal. A person who was abused as a child, for example, may be filled with rage and resentment. He or she may constantly look for (and therefore find) things to be enraged and resentful about. A person who once experienced terror or chronic fear may feel threatened by people and situations that are really harmless. The biochemistry of the body also has a huge influence on how we view the world, as when a woman experiencing post-partum depression feels sadness and despair—a situation that can be disastrous if the woman has never been told how hormones can affect her feelings.

When our emotions are stimulated by outside factors, many people don’t realize they have a choice about how to respond. In the first moments after a feeling is triggered by some outside event, we may react instinctively; for all the moments after that, however, we have choices we can make.

For example, let’s say someone cuts you off while driving. You’re angry—that’s automatic. However, from that moment on, once your reasoning process is engaged, you can choose. Concerned about others, you might get the license number of the reckless driver. Remembering an incident when being upset affected your own driving, you may choose to withhold judgment. Or—making the choice all too many do on the nation’s highways—you may choose to stoke your anger into rage and act aggressively to the one who cut you off or other drivers. From the first moment after the initial stimulus that prompted anger, you’re responsible for how you deal with it.

We also have choices about our prevailing moods and attitudes—whether to be, or continue to be, habitually optimistic or pessimistic, tolerant or hostile, agreeable or angry, calm or excitable. Some of these tendencies are controlled by our genes—but once we become aware of them, we can modify them.

It takes work—both emotional and intellectual—to really understand how we feel and why. Most of us in America have the freedom to choose whether to be happy. However, I believe that whether or not we choose to do this work is more than a personal matter—it’s also a moral choice, since our attitudes and emotions directly impact the lives of everyone around us.

If you happen to be interested in the subject of this little meditation, stay tuned for the next installment, “The Role of Negative Emotions in a Positive Life.” For the rest of you, please bear with me—we’ll get back to talking politics again soon!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Another Example of Religion Interfering with Politics

This brief comment also raises some important questions, including whether non-charitable church activities should be sheltered from the taxes paid by other money-making American enterprises.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Is This Ronald Reagan's GOP?

One of the most interesting aspects of this fascinating time in American politics is the transformation going on in the Republican Party. I grew up in a family of Republican voters, but the party of today isn't the one my grandparents supported.

For one very thoughtful reflection on the subject, I highly recommend Robert Shrum's recent article in The Week.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Still More Lies about Health Reform

The insurance companies and their bought-and-paid-for public servants, like Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, are at it again—desperately trying to derail the health care overhaul this country so desperately needs. I’ve had it with the ads running in my area, claiming health care reform will bankrupt the country, that it’s a “bill we can’t afford to pay.” (Note the clever and insidious double entendre on the word “bill.”)

What we can’t afford is more of the status quo—continuing America’s second-class system, which is undermining the nation’s health and threatening another financial meltdown when Medicare runs out of money.

Reports from the Congressional Budget Office and others consistently point to enormous savings in the new system now being proposed, as well as an option for the 46 million Americans who can’t afford health insurance. (And in a sluggish job market, every job lost may mean another family having to make the horrific choice between going without medical care or risking bankruptcy.)

I urge you, the silent majority of readers of this blog, to do two small things today to make the world a little better:
  1. Log onto the web page and sign your name to let Congress know you care about health care, and

  2. call the office of your local Representative and tell him or her to support the bill now being considered in the House.

The life or livelihood of someone you know very likely depends on whether we Americans do our small part now to move things forward--finally, after 40 years of talking about it!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Education: Every Poor Child Left Behind

In France, it matters not at all where a child lives—big city, rural village, in a cottage or a mansion: every child is taught the same basic curriculum in safe, clean, well-funded public schools. Each child is deemed worthy of the same amount of money for his or her education as every other child.

In America, it matters a great deal where a child lives. With state and local funding determining everything from teacher pay to the types of books (if any) students have to study, the rule of thumb is this: the rich are well educated and the poor are not. The rich are safe at school and the poor are not. The rich go to school in clean, well-lighted buildings with large classrooms and laboratories and low student-teacher ratios. Poor children may have to endure buildings contaminated with mold and mildew, outdated textbooks (if any), and crowded classrooms with discouraged, inexperienced, and underpaid teachers.

In 1991, Jonathan Kozol wrote a book that shamed the nation. Savage Inequalities documented the appalling inequalities across the country between educational opportunities for the rich and the poor—a distinction that all too often breaks down along racial lines. Kozol has been writing ever since, describing again and again the shameful apartheid that exists in America and documenting how, rather than getting better, the situation has become progressively worse.

Kozol is one of the most respected educational theorists since John Dewey. He’s founded model schools that show beyond doubt the efficacy of his ideas. Yet his tireless crusade in behalf of America’s school children has accomplished very little except to raise the consciousness of those who have read his books. The reason: the way schools are funded.

In The Shame of the Nation (2005), Kozol documents the breakdown of the “old, but seldom honored national ideal of universal public education that affords all children equal opportunity within the borders of a democratic entity.” Therein lies the problem. In America, the “democratic entities” that determine the level of opportunity for children are the states and local districts.

Data from 2005 shows that the average amount of money spent per student in this country was about $8700. However, that figure is pretty much meaningless; it represents that proverbial “average weight” of a mouse and an elephant. A state-by-state comparison shows a difference of almost $9000 per year between the state that has the highest per-student expenditures (New York at $14,119) and the lowest (Utah at $5,257). These figures don’t begin to suggest the magnitude of the problem, however: within each state, depending on the local tax base, expenditures per student can vary dramatically. This suggests what Jonathan Kozol has spent his career documenting in detail: students in America’s richest districts live on an entirely different planet from those in the poorest districts.

Neither states nor local communities can fix this problem. It has to be addressed on the national level.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a heavy-handed, unfunded mandate that forces every district in the country to meet arbitrary, often meaningless standards and to spend millions of dollars on expensive and time consuming “high-stakes” tests. However, its passage was at least an acknowledgment by the federal government that it bears some responsibility for equalizing educational opportunities in America. Professional educators have made the best of a bad situation and strive to meet the requirements of the bill, while improvements that would really make a difference—most significantly, smaller class sizes—continue to be put off indefinitely.

We can't fix inequalities in education by telling states and local districts to fix them. If they could, they would. Funding for education has to come from a pot big enough to ensure that there will be enough to go around. This would not be a matter of increasing overall costs for education; rather, it would be a matter of eliminating the colossal waste involved in having fifty different states with fifty different sets of standards, fifty different departments of education, and fifty different "high-stakes tests."

A responsible, functional central government could solve many of this nation's problems and eliminate extraordinary, unimaginable waste--if only we had the wisdom to elect good, responsible leaders (as we did in 2008) and support them as they go about their work.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

Much as we extol the wisdom and foresight of America’s founding fathers, we as a nation have spent over two centuries trying to understand some of their intentions and mightily resisting others.

Among the clauses still being debated are “cruel and unusual punishment” and the Second Amendment’s right to “keep and bear arms.” Among the concepts that have met with resistance is the notion that all “men” should enjoy equal rights and full citizenship. It took over well over a hundred years for the poor, blacks, and women to be recognized as “men” and treated accordingly—and the struggle for equality still goes on.

But of all the good intentions of the authors of America’s first documents, perhaps the one that’s been most trampled and ignored is the vital concept of the separation of church and state.

On January 1, 1802, shortly after taking office as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson responded to a letter from a religious group in Connecticut called the Danbury Baptists. In his response, Jefferson declared his “sovereign reverence” for what he called a “wall of separation between church and state.”

That “wall” is clearly established in the first words of the First Amendment of the Constitution, even before the much more widely known language regarding freedom of speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Please note that the Amendment forbids laws both “establishing” and “prohibiting the free exercise of” religion.

Christianity is a religion. In all its various incarnations, it happens to be, at present, the religion of the majority of people of faith in the United States. But that does't make America a “Christian” nation.

According to the First Amendment, America as a nation can no more be “Christian” than it can be Buddhist, Muslim, or Shamanic. Furthermore, if America were considered a “Christian” nation (in the broad, populist meaning of the word), that would still not make it a “fundamentalist” one. Being a Christian does not mean that one necessarily believes in creationism, speaking in tongues, or a literal interpretation of the Bible.

As an American, I don’t want “born again” Christian cult leaders—people like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Buchanan—caucusing with Congress, proposing legislation, advising presidents on public policy, or meddling in politics in more devious, secretive ways (like the terrifyingly powerful advisers to the “Family” on C Street).

Likewise, I’m opposed to the government’s having an office of “faith-based” initiatives, posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, or displaying crosses on public land. And just for the record, if it were up to me, I’d take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. (The Pledge worked just fine as a gesture of American unity before those words were added in 1954.)

Anyone who doubts that Jefferson’s all-important “wall” has been breached, especially in recent years, ought to read Max Blumenthal’s courageous, meticulously researched, and highly depressing book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. Although the historical focus of the book is the influence of religion during the George W. Bush administration, there are implications than should worry any American, regardless of political affiliation.

Every American should be concerned and vigilant about “religion creep” in the workings of the American government. The briefest glimpse at the state of affairs in many other countries today should be enough to illuminate the critical importance of maintaining the distinction between democracy and theocracy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Relevance of Iraq

Thomas Friedman is a guy seems to travel everywhere and have conversations with everybody who’s anybody. Having read his recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, I’ve been following his columns in The New York Times. His opinions about things may not always be right on target (in my humble opinion), but they’re usually interesting.

Here’s a piece
that’s changed my thinking a little on American’s continuing presence in Iraq. Believing as I do that we intervened in that country at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and for the wrong reasons, I’ve been pretty much convinced that we should get out of there as quickly and completely as possible. Friedman makes a case that what happens in that country in the months and years to come will have implications for our long-term interests and the stability of the world order. I think it’s worth a read.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Proliferation of American Political Parties

With its two-party system, America has always been, more or less, the land of the either-or fallacy. Federal rights or states’ rights, socialism or capitalism, big vs. small government—there has always been a certain degree of polarization.

But once upon a time, there were right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats, as well as a good many centrists from both parties who were near the top of the “bell curve” on any given issue. There were extended periods of time when people seemed to have a general understanding that, philosophically at least, the best position on almost any spectrum is somewhere near the middle.

In the past couple of decades, though, America seems to have drifted toward greater polarization than ever before. I leave it to sociologists to figure out why, but I have a hunch that at least part of the problem is information overload: with new science illuminating human understanding of everything from the birth of the universe to global climate change to the complexities of the human genome, many have opted out of thinking about all that by taking refuge in religion. Theirs is a reassuringly simple, authoritarian world, where everything that needs to be known is written in the Bible and “Christian” leaders tell their followers what to believe. No need to think or deal with the discomfort of being uncertain.

The Christian right has certainly been a major factor in the radicalization—and subsequent marginalization—of the Republican party. Meanwhile, lots of people were getting rich by manipulating public sentiment in favor of big business, unfettered to the greatest degree possible by government regulation and oversight. If you ignore the long-term effects of unbridled capitalism—degradations to the well-being of the poor and middle class, the economy, and the planet—you could make a case that “letting the market take care of things” seemed to be working—until about a year ago, when the house of cards came tumbling down.

Another interesting turn of events is the split that seems to be occurring in what’s left of the Republican Party between plain ol’ generic, vanilla-flavored “Republicans” and the die-hard “Conservatives”—the FOX News fanatics that until recently were considered more or less the foundation of the Republican “base.” But now we have a race for a Congressional seat in New York in which Sarah Palin, among others, has snubbed the mainstream Republican candidate in favor of the even more right-wing Conservative Party contender.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the spectrum, deep dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and Republican ways of doing things led to calls for decisive change. Enter Barack Obama, with his rallying cry, “Yes, we can!” His administration immediately set about implementing changes in many aspects of public life that have only been discussed—sometimes in whispers, for fear of incurring the wrath of the all-powerful right. Suddenly there are new attitudes toward foreign countries and “enemy combatants,” new banking regulations, new ways of looking at health care, and so much more.

So much change happening so fast is refreshing for progressives, who’ve long been weary of waiting and hoping for someone to do something about America’s major problems. But the pace of change is uncomfortable for many who, simply by virtue of the way their brains are wired, most likely have average or less-than-average tolerance for change. Hence, we see the emergence of a group called the Blue Dog Democrats, who are politically right of the progressive end of their party and tend to join with Republicans in crying, “Wait! Stop! Slow down!”

The overall result of these trends is a very interesting state of affairs. To borrow a phrase Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin.’” Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center have turned up the following results:
  1. Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 35% to 23%.

  2. Voters who identify as “independent” now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.

  3. The number of people identifying as Independents is increasing at a much steeper rate than ever before.

So let’s review what we seem to have now. Instead of just the two parties, there are politicians (and, increasingly, voters) who identify as one of the following: Conservative, mainstream Republican, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, and Progressive. Then there are a very large number of politically active Americans called “Independents” who may or may not fit anywhere along the traditional right-to-left political spectrum.

Of course, strategists on both sides of the traditional political aisle are scrambling to figure out just who these “independents” are and what they want. But meanwhile, everyone agrees that we are at a pivotal point in history, and the future of the country and the planet hinges on decisions being made in Washington.

This is obviously a brief commentary on a very large topic, and as you might expect, I’ll have further thoughts to share on the subject. I’ll also be very interested in comments from readers. Meanhwhile, I leave you with some relevant remarks from Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Anglicans and the Catholic Church

Yesterday the Pope announced an arrangement whereby Anglicans dissatisfied with the cultural openness and progressive direction their church has adopted in recent years can now take refuge in the Catholic Church, which continues its official head-in-the-sand approach to dealing with the modern world.

The Anglican Church was created in 1534 as a means for England’s King Henry VIII to circumvent refusal of the Catholic pope to agree to annulment of his marriage. Draconian as Henry’s methods may have been in ridding himself of wives, his audacity in establishing a new church did accomplish two good things for society.

First, the Anglican Communion—which retains many of the customs and beliefs of its parent church—allows clergy to marry, thus eliminating the artificial barrier between priests and society that has proven problematic in many ways among Catholics. Second, by forcing the second of the great schisms in Christianity (the first being the departure of the Orthodox Churches in the 11th Century) Henry helped to promulgate the notion that there can be more than one set of religious beliefs. This undoubtedly helped to stimulate a great flowering of new ideas and the diversity of Protestant Churches that exist today.

Lately, two of the most contentious issues in the Anglican Church and its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, have been the ordination of women and the recognition of committed relationships among same-sex couples. Understandably, some people are slower than others to adapt to change, and in both churches, there are conservatives who have a hard time accepting new cultural norms. In the Catholic Church, one of those conservatives happens to be the Pope.

What’s interesting to me about all this is that, on a shrinking planet, cultural changes that potentially involve hundreds of thousands of people generally involve all of us, one way or another. Here are some thoughts about how the Pope’s little gesture may snowball into something much bigger than he might imagine:

  • From this day forward, there will be a precedent for the notion of married priests in the Catholic Church. Home-grown clergy may not long tolerate much greater privileges for the adopted children of the family.

  • If Catholics become accustomed to the notion that priests can marry, they may find it a relatively small step to entertain the notion of women as priests.

  • If conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians start flocking to the Roman church, more culturally liberal Catholics may very well start migrating the other direction. This may initially result in two large international churches with very similar liturgy but very different political and cultural beliefs.

  • As both churches adapt to change, however, each may find it harder than ever to ignore new cultural trends and equate tradition with avoidance of change.

It may well be that Pope Benedict, the reactionary Pontiff who preached against condom use in countries where AIDS is rampant, has opened the barn door and let out a few horses. Stuffing them back in could be easier said than done.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Price of Life

An odd thing happened to me recently during Breast Cancer Awareness Week. My entire place of business was dressed in pink, and I hate pink. I was in the process of saying so when my phone rang. A beloved cousin was calling to tell me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. With an early diagnosis, however, her prognosis is excellent. That would have been enough of a coincidence; however, an hour later, I got a call from another woman who said exactly the same thing. One hour, two women whose lives had been saved by awareness and early diagnosis. I vowed never to complain about pink again.

Then yesterday at a beauty salon, I chatted with a woman who had just had her toe nails painted pink, with the signature pink ribbon on each big toe. A breast cancer survivor herself, she is big into talking up the value of mammograms with every woman she meets. Having become the (hopefully temporary) guardian of a cat, I then went to the store and bought cat litter for the first time in several months. On the handle of the plastic container was a pink sticker with the ubiquitous ribbon and the message, “We support breast cancer research.”

Here’s a public awareness campaign that works, and thousands of women are alive because of it. The survival rate for those diagnosed early with breast cancer exceeds 96%.

Clearly, mammograms save lives; however, 13 million women in the U.S. aged 40 or over have never had one. For most, it’s a matter of cost. The $600-a-month insurance plan I had last year doesn’t cover them; the $800-a-month plan I was forced to buy this year does, but with a hefty “co-pay.” For many women in America, the cost of routine health maintenance, including mammograms, is simply out of reach.

This is an excellent example of why this country so desperately needs affordable health care, not just expensive emergency care for poor and middle-income families. Optimum health care requires much more than just emergency crisis management. It requires consistent access to health and wellness services—services too many Americans can’t afford.

The status quo is intolerable. Americans have waited forty years for a viable national plan for health services, while the insurance industry and its allies have stalled for time. The wait is over. Now is the time for comprehensive health care reform.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Health Reform and the Ongoing Struggle between Reason and Emotion

No one can make me mad—except myself.

Adolescents are walking, talking bundles of hormones and emotions. Most of them have a rudimentary brain, but many seldom use it in their day-to-day decisions and relationships. Those who are bright and well taught may be able to write coherent paragraphs and do quadratic equations; however, they may be stumped when it comes to knowing who and what to believe when it comes to feelings.

If adolescents feel passion, they assume that the object of their affection is perfect and a potential source of all that is wonderful. If they feel anger, they assume someone has done something to make them angry. Unless someone helps them understand, they have no way of knowing how fickle emotions can be—or, more importantly, that they can choose how to feel.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the elementary or secondary curricula in schools that teaches people the difference between thoughts and feelings—or which to trust when the two are in conflict. Consequently, the habit of acting on emotions and giving them too much credence persists throughout life. Many—if not most—of us muddle along as best we can, unsure when to think with our heads and when to go with our gut, making lots of mistakes along the way. (For a great discussion on this topic, see Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide.)

In America, this lack of general knowledge about emotions and how they affect decision making results in a naïve public—one that can be easily manipulated and exploited. Merchants and advertisers depend on consumers who can be swayed by their feelings—who, for example, can be persuaded to “trust Bayer,” which may cost two or three times as much as identical generic aspirin.

We live in an economy that is largely driven by the ignorance of the consumer—but when it comes to emotional decision making, that’s the least of our problems. After all, manufacturers of name-brand products have to make a buck, and generally, we all agree that competition is a good thing. Buyer beware.

When it comes to political decisions, however, a naïve public can be much more problematic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current struggle over health care reform.

There are at least two sides to any topic as broad as American health care. In a rational country, one side would be focusing on fact-based assessments of the costs of reform, the other on the needs of the people. After all, in an imperfect world, there will always be the need for some cost-benefit analysis.

Instead of doing their job of providing rational, objective assessments of costs, however, members of the GOP (General Opposition Party) and so-called fiscal conservatives have thrown in their lot with the extreme right, which has had decades of success manipulating the public by stirring up fear and anger. Manipulation of public sentiments is a useful tool for preventing progress—especially when “progress” means interfering with a process by which a few become obscenely rich by exploiting the masses.

In the case of health care reform, the extreme right—protecting the interests of insurance companies and for-profit medical industries—has frightened and angered huge segments of the naïve, gullible public with lies about “death panels,” forced abortions, and threats to Medicare. They’ve done this primarily through propaganda—which, like all propaganda, masquerades as “news”—on Fox TV and AM radio. This disinformation campaign has been hugely successful—but that doesn’t make it right.

People who know better—or should know better—just stand by when these lies are being told, figuring that if public sentiment seems to be swinging their way, the end justifies the means. I think it’s wrong to manipulate people through lies. I think it’s wrong for people who should know better to jump onto an emotional bandwagon, regardless of where that wagon might be going.

When adolescents wallow in emotions and enjoy the drama, that’s understandable. When adults do the same thing, it’s a shame. And in 21st Century America, there’s no excuse for intelligent adults to continue to be naïve, emotionally volatile, and ignorant about the difference between rational and emotional decision making.

Objective, fact-based analysis of issues of national concern is readily available. All most people have to do to find it is change the channel.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pride in America

Walk into any American high school on a Friday afternoon. You won’t have to wonder what the school’s colors are—half the students and staff will be wearing them. If there’s a game that night, you’ll know it by an air of excitement and cheerleaders carrying pom poms to classes. It doesn’t really matter if the home team is winning or losing—there’ll be a general sense of unity, optimism, and support for the team. If the coach happens by, people will bob their heads in acknowledgment and call him by his title of respect, “Coach.” All differences are put aside on game day, and all hearts are focused on winning.

Not every day is game day, of course, but that spirit of pride, togetherness, and belonging to something bigger than oneself is part of what motivates everyone in the building to do their day-to-day work. It helps individuals believe in their institution and what it stands for and to value their place in it. Educators know that school spirit is one factor that helps create a positive atmosphere, a sense of mutual cooperation and support, and high achievement.

In a good school—as in a good company or even a strong family—there’s a general sense of pride in belonging. That’s true of countries, as well. And I submit that in America, the Dysfunctional Family, that spirit of pride, ownership, and support for the home team is tragically, and even dangerously, lacking.

The day after an election is game day in America. And for months, now, our coach and our team have been playing to largely empty stands on the home field. Our improbable national cheerleaders—the Limbaughs, Becks, and Palens—have been rooting for the other teams. People who call themselves Americans have been cheering when the others score points. And those of us who want to cheer for our coach and our team often feel that we have to do so quietly or risk being mocked, criticized, or even threatened by the allegedly “loyal” opposition and those who support them.

When Chicago was not chosen as the site for the 2016 Olympics and Rio de Janeiro was, some so-called Americans cheered. Never mind that the United States has been privileged to host the Olympic games a dozen times while the entire continent of South America never has. Never mind that practically the entire population of Rio turned out to show their support and enthusiasm and willingness to work for the honor of hosting the games, while in America, as usual, cynical and negative voices turned the entire process into a mean-spirited “debate.” Never mind that the selection process had been going on for years. America behaved as though the entire matter revolved on a single speech by our president, a last shout just before the final touchdown. And when America wasn’t the winner of the game, the loudest voices were cheering the so-called “failure” of their country.

And when America wins—as when an international committee awards our president one of the world’s highest honors—crowds on the home side boo. When America wins, they shake their fists at the referee.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Follow Citizen Jane on Twitter!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

America: The Dysfunctional Family

The word “dysfunctional” means, literally, unable to function properly. Applied to people, it means they’re unable to effectively grow, solve problems, take care of routine business, and maintain a general state of equilibrium. When people are not “dysfunctional,” we sometimes say they’re “well balanced” or “well adjusted.”

Functional people are fairly predictable and dependable. Dysfunctional people are not.

Functional people have a good grip on reality and tell the truth. Dysfunctional people may be delusional and/or lie a lot.

Functional people experience the full range of human emotions—including negative emotions such as anger, guilt, or anxiety. For them, though, these emotions are transitory; they get past those negative feelings quickly and then take action to correct whatever problem may have caused them to feel anger, guilt, or anxiety. Dysfunctional people, on the other hand, live in a constant state of emotional turmoil; they tend to wallow in negative feelings, day in and day out, without doing anything about them.

Functional people make short- and long-term goals; they analyze the steps necessary for success and reach many of their goals. Dysfunctional people fool themselves and others into believing they’re making positive changes, but nothing ever really changes.

Dysfunctional people play games. Functional people have honest, adult-adult relationships based on mutual respect, fairness, and honesty.

One dysfunctional person in a family can make the entire family dysfunctional—unless the others work very hard to work around the obstacles presented by that person. Like a spoiled child, the dysfunctional person can suck up all the energy and attention that should be directed at solving problems and moving forward. That’s not right, and it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

Let’s say, for example, that in an otherwise fairly productive family, one person chooses to be continually negative, angry, and spiteful. Odds are that the others will probably spend a good bit of time trying to reason with the disaffected member, offer unnecessary compromises, and generally go overboard trying to please. When none of that works, however, the family must find ways to prevent the dysfunctional person from impeding progress and making everyone else miserable.

So it has been in America in the past few months. There are those who want to set goals, make improvements, and get things done. Then there’s a minority who want to play games, wallow in anger and resentment, and generally impede progress of any kind.

Sometimes there are those who can have a positive influence on a dysfunctional family member, persuading him or her to be less petty, obstinate, and argumentative—to cooperate for the sake of everyone, if only for a while.

In America, perhaps Bob Dole is one of those people.

Follow Citizen Jane on Twitter!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Anger: The Right’s Best Weapon

Anger is a wind which blows out the light of the mind. –Robert Green Ingersoll

For decades, now, certain entities in this country—pundits, conservative “think tanks,” major corporations, GOP politicians—have been spending a lot of money and energy trying to make you mad. Mad-making is a very lucrative business. How else would a know-nothing blowhard like Rush Limbaugh get rich enough to be thinking about buying a football team?

Why would people pour billions of dollars into enterprises—from cable TV and nationally syndicated radio shows to allegedly “grass roots” web sites and “tea parties”—that are designed to do nothing but stir up anger by whatever means?

Why make up idiotic lies about everything from the president’s birthplace to “death panels”? Why keep dragging emotionally charged non-issues, like abortion and gun control, into every so-called “debate”?

Simple: you can’t be really angry and think at the same time. And these people don’t want you to think. People who are thinking are hard to lead around by the nose.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. Frighten people badly, and as soon as the perceived danger passes, they’re likely to be pissed off. Take something away from them and they’ll feel grief, shortly followed by anger.

In America, the political right has elevated mad-making to an art and practiced it ruthlessly in pursuit of their goals. I’m not saying the left has never been guilty of manipulating people through anger—and it’s a despicable, dishonest practice, whoever does it—but in this country, “conservative” and “pissed off” have come to be practically synonymous. That’s no accident.

When people are angry, they look for a cause of their anger. In this country, there’s a huge, well-funded industry of mad-makers continually standing by to point out who we should be mad at: the president and Congress, of course. Look no further.

Habitual anger isn’t good for people. It raises blood pressure, causes ulcers, and makes us vulnerable to all sorts of stress-related illnesses. But in case anyone’s missed the point in recent months, the “right” doesn’t care about your health. And like a lot of other things that aren’t good for us—from cigarettes to sugar—anger, like any emotion, can be habit forming or even addictive. The people devoted to keeping the right people on the right rich—they know this. They dish out anger like cigarette companies used to give away free cigarettes, and for the same reason—to get you hooked.

Sadly, millions of people are still buying.

Stay tuned for more on this subject in the days to come.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Response to a Reader's Request

Here are a few sources for anyone who might be interested in exploring reasons the Iraq war was—to put it very kindly—ill-conceived:

Then of course there’s any of the books on the subject by Bob Woodward, who’s been obsessing about this matter for several years, now.

One thing that distinguishes this war from the war in Vietnam is the vast amount of information that is instantly and continuously available to writers and analysts. It’s much harder to keep secrets than it was fifty years ago.

Another Point of View

Here's a thoughtful commentary defending American involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Follow Citizen Jane on Twitter.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

John McCain: Right about Afghanistan

America’s full of negative people willing to sacrifice almost anything of value for the sake of undermining the efforts of the president to bring about positive change. Health reform, improved international relations, economic recovery, environmental responsibility—nothing‘s so important to the nation that it can’t be blockaded for the sake of financial or political gain. That’s why John McCain’s support of the administration in terms of Afghanistan is so important—and so refreshing.

America is weary of war, they say. Well—yeah. After seven years in Iraq—where we had no real enemies or legitimate purpose—of course we are. But now, at last, we have a strategic purpose that couldn’t be more important—dismantling and dis-empowering Al Qaida. Now we’re focusing the might of America where our enemies reside—where Osama bin Laden is in hiding and where Najibullah Zazi and countless other would-be terrorists are trained to attack the United States and its citizens.

The differences between the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan cannot be overstated. In Iraq, we were engaged in a vague, ill-conceived “mission” of nation-building—purportedly trying to bring American-style “democracy” to a country steeped in its own political problems and ancient traditions. In Afghanistan, we’re going after real enemies who have brought great harm to our country and aim to destroy more American lives. In Iraq, decisions were politically motivated. In Afghanistan, military strategists and experts on the ground are helping to build a plan for success.

John McCain is a Quixotic, impulsive man who tends to be easily swayed by the slightest breeze wafting from the right. Nonetheless he’s capable, at times, of exhibiting both clarity and integrity. For the sake of a future free of the fear of another 9/11, let’s hope that his support of the right war in the right place is steady and persuasive to others who are uninformed and “think” with their emotions.

Follow Citizen Jane on Twitter.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Last Saturday evening, I had the privilege of having dinner with a handful of true patriots and their families. These men—veterans of PT boat service during WWII—volunteered in their youth for the Navy’s riskiest jobs. After months of intensive training, they boarded tiny wooden ships and went up against the Japanese Navy, German submarines, and in some cases, the worst weather on the planet. The stories they tell are breathtaking.

There’s the one about the 15-year-old who was accepted into the war-time Navy because he had priceless ham radio experience. By the time he was 19, he’d survived the Bataan death march, two bayonet wounds, and over two years as a Japanese prisoner of war. There’s the guy who lost sight of another boat as they went to battle against Japanese war ships in Surigao Strait in the Philippines. Sixty years later, he met a man who’d been aboard the other PT boat, and they identified one another by the numbers of their boats. Each had discovered a fellow sailor he’d thought had been lost on the other boat. They fell into each other’s arms and wept with joy that both had survived. One fellow laughed as he described trying to cook frozen Spam during winter in the Aleutian Islands.

What makes these men patriots? Their actions. Patriotism isn’t an emotion, it’s a commitment. It’s not just “feeling the love”—it’s doing something about it. It’s more than a hand over the heart during the National Anthem or a ribbon displayed on the butt end of an automobile.

As we left the dining hall, I was pondering what I can do, in all my pampered safety, to be a patriot. One of the elderly warriors happened to be standing by the door, gazing at some photos of President Obama, the Commandant of the Navy, and other top military officials. I saw him reach his hand up and touch the bill of an imaginary cap.

Following his gaze, I asked, “Are you a Democrat?”

“No,” he said, “I’m a Republican. But that man’s my Commander in Chief. That’s all I need to know.”

Friday, September 25, 2009


Here's a good discussion about why America is so volatile right now.

When fire danger is high, responsible people don't toss out matches.

Follow Citizen Jane on Twitter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones . . . But Words Can Kill

For some reason, there hasn’t been much in the news about the horrific, violent death of Bill Sparkman, whose body was found yesterday near Manchester, Kentucky. The 51-year-old substitute teacher and part-time census taker was found hanged, with the word “Fed” scrawled across his chest.

I guess his death wasn’t very important—compared, say, to the 168 dead and almost 700 wounded in Timothy McVeigh’s 1996 attack on the federal government. But try telling that to Bill Sparkman’s mother.

People have always groused about taxes, things left undone by the government, and— ironically— interference by the government in their everyday affairs. “It’s just words,” some say. “People like to complain.”

Well, words can kill—and they do.

Just ask the 11-year-old son of Stephen Johns, the guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., who was shot down in June by a white supremacist. Or the families of the hundreds of police, federal office workers, and national park employees who suffer violence each year at the hands of people inflamed by the kind of hate-filled, anti-government propaganda so prevalent on FOX News and conservative talk radio.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of these things, reports that membership in hate groups is up by more than 50% since the year 2000—a time frame that coincides, not coincidentally, with the rise of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage (whose pseudonym, interestingly enough, he chose himself).

But I’m not blaming Rush, Sean, or Michael for the atmosphere of violence that is clearly building in this country. Every one of us who willingly listens to these hate-mongers, allowing them to stoke the sentiments of negativity and rage in our hearts, is to blame. Every one of us who mindlessly supports radical organizations that use basically good ideas to support broad, radical ideologies (yes, NRA, I’m talking about you) is to blame. Everyone who habitually bitches about the government without doing something constructive to improve it is to blame.

We in America are not very far removed from the days when hundreds of people were hanged in the South every year because of the color of their skin. We’re only months past the days when people were routinely tortured by Americans in the name of national security. We still live in a country where those who serve our collective interests—that is, anyone who wears a badge or a uniform—may become a target of generalized, anti-government hatred and violence.

There is so much good that needs to be done—and for the next Bill Sparkman, so little time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Citizen Jane is now on Twitter!

Please join me at

The New House Un-American Activities Committee

Throughout the fifties and sixties, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was the House version of what eventually became known as McCarthyism—the modern witch hunt that destroyed untold numbers of lives and careers in the name of “Americanism.” Like its historical Salem counterpart, this “witch hunt” was based on paranoia, ignorance, and intolerance. Sometimes its victims were targets of someone mean and clever enough to use the power of politics against a rival. Sometimes the destruction was completely impersonal—the result of politicians “counting coup” in order to get attention and be perceived as powerful warriors in the cause of so-called “justice.”

Some of the members of the HUAC and the hundreds who testified in its hearings were vicious and consciously evil. Others were merely ignorant and easily led. Still others were genuinely deluded by the notion that insidious forces were working to take over the minds of America. In any case, it was those tarred with accusations by the HUAC that were thought to be “un-American," not—at the time—the committee members themselves.

Now, however, it seems evident that plenty of things are going on in the House itself that could be called “un-American” by almost any standard. So here, from among many qualified candidates, are my nominations for a new HUAC—one composed of House members bent on destroying the soul and undermining the strength of this great nation:

  • John Boehner (R-OH), a lead obstructionist opposing anything that might move America forward, from the financial stimulus to climate control measures; lead liar claiming, among other things, that health care reform would result in “death panels”

  • Michele Bachman (R-MN), frequent user of inflammatory language to promote rage, revolution, and a citizenry that is “armed and dangerous”

  • Patrick McHenry (R-NC), whose stated purpose is not to make good legislation but to undermine the duly elected government, to “bring down to the approval numbers for . . . Democrats.”

  • Eric Cantor (R-VA), rude and relentless standard-bearer for the GOP (General Opposition Party) who flamboyantly ignored the president during a joint session of Congress and tries to undermine his authority, even on foreign soil

  • Ron Paul (R-TX), Libertarian leader who has inspired many of the best minds in America to adopt a cynical, anti-government point of view and withdraw from public affairs rather than being leaders for constructive change.

With august nay-sayers and anger-mongers such as these, presidential heckler Joe Wilson--who at least had the good grace to offer a half-assed apology—doesn’t even make the list.