Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Of Political Honeymoons

One would have to be deaf, dumb, and offline not to know that today is Barack Obama’s 100th day in office. I’ve been wondering what I might say about that without simply reiterating what many others are saying. I was accused by a good friend recently of being mean-spirited about the former president, George W. Bush, which got me thinking about some of the things I really liked about the man himself. So I’ve decided to honor this occasion by saying some nice things about Mr. Bush. (That hasn’t been done for awhile.)

First, I will always be grateful to Mr. Bush for his calm, steady leadership in the days following 9/11. While so many of us were speechless with horror and confusion, he exuded an air of confidence and unity of purpose. He articulated our national grief and determination not to be defeated. He was the father figure we all instinctively yearned for; we craved the reassurance of hearing him speak, the symbol of our identity as a nation. He inspired us then.

On May 1, 2003, when Bush stepped out of a fighter aircraft that had just landed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and took off his helmet, what an awesome gift he gave the American troops. He clearly meant to make a gesture that would honor their achievement and give us all a sense of pride after a time of staggering fear and uncertainty. At the time, I thought it was very cool to see our fit and confident president claiming victory in the war zone. We had little reason to believe that success wouldn’t be swift and unequivocal, as it was in the first Gulf War. It was only in hindsight, given the wrong turns that occurred later in the course of what became a long and tragic conflict, that people began to mock him for proclaiming, “Mission Accomplished.”

Despite the anger that I and many other Americans felt by then, I couldn’t help but like George Bush the day he and his wife, Laura, welcomed the Obamas to the traditional inaugural luncheon in the White House. For just a moment, I got a glimpse of them as just an American couple, gracious and hospitable despite being caught up in a time of forced change.

Even after I came to despise much of what his administration represented, as well as some of the people who helped to shape his destiny, there were times when I had to like Bush the man. With his sometimes boyish, self-deprecating humor, he appeared to really like people. Even when I no longer believed much or all of what he said (although, in all fairness, I think he did believe a lot of it), I sometimes had to admire his turn of phrase.

I was unnerved to learn recently that one of the local colleges is now teaching a three-part series of courses in U.S. history, and the text book for the third quarter starts after I was born. I’ve been around long enough to know that history can be very fickle. I don’t know what history will have to say about George W. Bush. I sincerely hope some future Republican Party, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of today’s, won’t succeed in creating a revisionist image of him, canonizing him posthumously as they did with Ronald Reagan (another really likable guy, as I recall). But it would be nice if he could at least go down in history as a man who meant well.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


In a group of my cohorts—all of whom are, as the French would say, d’un certain age—someone asked an interesting question: “Which decade of your life did you like the least?” Without hesitation, I said that I liked my twenties the least. Now that I have children in their twenties, I’ve been reflecting about why that might be.

Given good health and reasonably good fortune, it would seem, on the face of it, that the decade of one’s twenties should be as good as life gets. I’m sure it is for some. It’s the time when most people achieve long-awaited independence from their family of origin and—perhaps for the first time—respect for having mastered skills that are valuable in the work place. Most have a network of friends and family collected over the years that give them support and security when times get rough. Most have completed (or at least taken a hiatus) from formal schooling and may think, with some justification, “I’m finally free!”

But are they?

More than any other age group, twenty-somethings tend to be overworked and underpaid. Although their skills may match or exceed those of their bosses and coworkers, they’re likely to be exploited; lacking in seniority and with a fairly short resumé, they usually can’t complain. With the American dream tantalizingly close but still out of reach, they tend to work more and more hours and perhaps over-extend themselves financially. They rack up debts, mortgages, and obligations that feel like free choices in the beginning but can begin to weigh heavily in a hurry.

In terms of career, many have been sidetracked into a scheme to make money rather than a job that promises satisfaction and fulfillment. Aware of the danger of getting stuck, twenty-somethings begin to worry, justifiably, whether they will lose sight of the bridge from here to there.

In terms of social life, the decade of the twenties can be exhausting—at least it was for me. There are beloved relationships and social obligations, but for most, there’s also a perceived need—stated or implied—to make some sort of long-term commitment. Culture, society, and families may exert a great deal of pressure here, although typically, nobody talks about it openly.

The twenty-something may be sorting out all kinds of feelings and life-style options— single or committed, gay or straight, children or no children—trying to match need with opportunity and hoping to avoid irresolvable conflicts. For those who’ve emerged from certain religious backgrounds, there may be the additional question of a vocation to religious life. Who? How? When? In the twenties, there’s a biological and social urgency to these questions that can be painful and distracting. Constantly pushed to make choices, one may be excruciatingly aware of the situations of others who have made regrettable ones.

Children in this land of plenty are encouraged to dream. But by their mid-twenties, smart young people have realized the folly of magical thinking and know that dreams don’t just “come true.” Time, energy, and hard work will be needed to realize those dreams. But where, exactly, should that effort be placed? Which specific dream should they pursue? And most importantly, how—what with jobs, social commitments, and the time and effort required just to get through every day? Where is the time left over to pursue those illustrious, illusive dreams?

From a distance, the decade of the twenties appears to be a time of great promise and opportunity—and of course it is. But up close, it can also be a time of loneliness, confusion, and general disappointment. A landscape mined with mistakes to be avoided, it must be crossed to get to the other side—to that shining, tantalizing world of Life as It Ought to Be.

Twenty-somethings, you have my sympathy. Hang in there. And (to borrow a phrase from Star Wars), "May the Force be with you!"

Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Born Every Minute

A new church moved into my town a year or two ago, and its members seem to be multiplying like mosquitoes in August. You can see them blocks away, dressed in immaculate white suits (skirts for the women, slacks for the men), beribboned like war heroes, and starched within an inch of their lives. These people—mostly young adults—cruise the sidewalks near busy intersections and set up folding tables in front of Wal-mart, begging for money. Mostly they’re silent—they just hold out their paper-covered coffee cans and—here’s the scary part—people put money in them! Traffic backs up when lights turn green as people lean out their car windows to drop money into these coffee cans.

The tables at Wal-Mart are draped with hand-lettered signs that claim that money raised goes to the poor and homeless.

What poor and homeless? I’m aware of several shelters and soup kitchens in the area, but none of them are run by these folks. For all their contributors know, they use the money to have orgies, fund al Quaida, or buy babies to sell into slavery. It’s apparently some kind of conditioned response—stick a can under some people’s nose, and they put money in it.

Whatever these crusaders use the money for, the ruse apparently pays off. Somebody’s paying a whopping bill for dry-cleaning!

The people tossing money to these folks aren’t all driving Mercedes and BMWs—but what if they were? The point is that many, many people are incredibly gullible and quick to support things they don’t understand. It’s another example of people “thinking” with their emotions—or rather, in this case, not thinking at all but rather acting impulsively.

A mathematician would point out that even very small sums of money, wisely invested, could result in a great deal of money over time. How many of the people who casually throw cash to strangers on the sidewalk save money regularly? How many have a cause they support—one they’ve researched, thought about, and really believe in? How many—perhaps having learned something from the near-collapse of the world economy—live within their means, using cash or debit instead of credit?

The gullibility of the American people supports a great many questionable causes. Utter certain magic words over the phone—“veterans,” ‘blind,” “missing children”—and people pledge. A key phrase, shouting in LARGE PRINT on the back of an envelope, is enough to make many people take out their checkbook. But experts warn that anyone can set up a phone bank and solicit money for a phony charity, and even the legitimate ones may waste as much as 90% of their donations on administrative costs. Billions are wasted by well-intentioned people who give thoughtlessly.

Even charities that have been around a long time—a few that come to mind are PETA, the NRA, and Greenpeace—have changed their missions since they were founded years ago, often becoming much more radical and politicized. People who believe in the general causes these mega-charities represent would be well advised to take a close look today and see if they still support what the organizations stand for.

Americans gave almost $300 billion dollars to “charity” in 2006. (Presumably, this doesn’t include money casually tossed to strangers on the street.) Imagine what good that kind of money could do if it were spent carefully and used efficiently!

I say we all just say no to supporting people and things we don’t know anything about and start acting deliberately to make the world a better place. Now that we have the Internet, a few keystrokes is all it takes to get information about any legitimate organization. At the very least, the change we throw out the window could be saved in a jar and donated at Christmas to a local food bank, homeless shelter, or Goodwill Industries—anywhere where we know it may actually do some good.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Right to Believe

It’s a common expression: “People have a right to believe what they believe.”

But do they? I think it’s time we distinguished between honest disagreement and willful ignorance.

“Honest” disagreement implies that the parties have made—and continue to make—a good faith effort to learn the truth about something. They may not understand the whole truth—who among us really understands the “whole truth” about anything?—but they have exerted some intellectual effort to learn, evaluate, and come to tentative conclusions.

I say “tentative” conclusions, because being honest implies being open to the possibility that there may be more to learn and understand. It means giving up the smug complacency of having everything all figured out and allowing for doubt. Intelligent, honest people always have doubts. People with intellectual integrity can tolerate uncertainty. They live at the edge of what they understand—not smack in the middle of some so-called “reality” they’ve constructed out of blind faith and other people’s ideas.

“Blind” faith is oh, so easy, so simple. Swallow this pill and life will be simple. No effort required.

What started me off on this particular rant was the death of a friend—a friend who died of a well-understood, curable illness. Her husband, too, died in his thirties of a curable illness. They belonged to a religion that told them that God would cure them if He chose. Their two sons, who had lost a brother, had now lost both parents.

My friend kept quiet about her disease, so no one outside her immediate family knew she was sick until she was gone. That was the “willful” part of her ignorance. She confided only in people who believed as she chose to believe and would not encourage her to get medical intervention.

Do people have a right to believe stupid things? Do they have a right to willfully blind themselves to arguments that might cause them doubt or confusion? I think not—for the simple reason that no one’s life is really his or her own. All of us are bonded to others who will be hurt and diminished if we are hurt and diminished.

I think people have a moral obligation to think with their minds, not their emotions. It’s one thing to decide what we want to believe (i.e., make an emotional decision) and then use our perfectly good brain to rationalize that belief—trimming the corners of truth so it fits into the round hole of our belief system. It’s quiet another to come to grips with what we have to believe—groping our way forward, moving from one rational idea to another, acknowledging that life is too complex for our entire view of it ever to be “finished.”

Is there a God who plays games with people by hiding truths and punishing those who miss them—who, as one so-called Christian once told me, hides dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith? What an evil deity that would be. And why, pray tell, would anyone want to worship him?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Wake Up Call

Some fiscal conservatives seem to be feeling that their positions on things aren’t being adequately recognized, so they’ve come up with a way to get attention: “teabagging” Washington as a means of peaceful protest. (And for those of you who’ve Googled this term and found its “urban” meaning, you know that’s not what they meant!)

Say what you will, this idea is such a pleasant diversion from screaming and hate mongering that I think we ought to encourage it and play along. (BYW, I know I’m not an important Democrat, but in case anyone’s interested, I’m very fond of rooibus.)

I propose that we Democrats reciprocate by giving conservative members of Congress a good “grounding” (as in the expression, “grounded in reality”). We could send coffee grounds to some of those who really need to wake up and smell the coffee. The whole thing could really be a latté fun! (Okay, okay, I’ll stop now.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Just in Time for Spring . . .

Some of Today's Headlines:
  • "Wells Fargo Shocks Market with Record Profits"

  • "New Jobless Claims Fall More Than Expected"

  • "Trade Gap Narrows Sharply"

  • "Fifth Consecutive Week of Stock Market Gains"

  • "Optimism Grows"

  • "Obama to Close CIA 'Black Sites'"

Thank you, Mr. President.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

10 Reasons Why We Need Big Government

For two and a quarter centuries, leaders of the United States have struggled to remain faithful to the Constitution, the ingenious new plan for a country devised by its founders—individuals who labored for years to refine their insights and achieve consensus. In general, their plan has served us well, and we have grown as a nation.

Things have changed a bit, of course, and the vast institution that governs this vast nation has had to change, too. In 1776, there were about 2.5 million people living in the colonies that became the first states, and only a small fraction of them (adult white male land-owners) were privileged to participate in decision making. There are now over 306 million U.S. residents, 65% of them eligible to vote. At the country’s start, communication could travel only as fast as a good horse and rider; now most residents of the planet (and even those in orbit) can connect with one another almost instantaneously in a variety of ways. Other countries—most of which, in the time of our forefathers, could be reached only by means of a long ocean voyage—are now only hours away by plane (or minutes by missile).

So government has had to grow, too. This question of how large and how extensive government should be is, of course, at the root of much of the controversy between the two major political parties in the U.S. Like so many things in American politics, it’s all too often discussed and debated emotionally rather than rationally. But it’s a question that must be discussed.

So here, for the sake of what I hope will be meaningful dialogue, are the reasons I think the government of the U.S. in the 21st century must be fairly large and comprehensive:

1. To prevent exploitation of individuals by big companies and financial institutions.
2. To protect the environment.
3. To maintain the health of the national and international economies.
4. To protect the nation and its allies against aggression.
5. To foster technological and scientific progress.
6. To provide for the poor.
7. To ensure the safety of products and services.
8. To protect citizens abroad.
9. To cultivate the nation’s heritage and protect the constitutional rights of its citizens.
10. To provide consistency, communication, and coordination among the many departments, agencies, and bureaus that provide these services.

Have at it, Republicans!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Note to My Readers

My tracking information tells me that some of you out there are still reading my posts, and for that I thank you. The lack of recent comments leads me to believe that my conservative Republican friends have either 1) given up in disgust on their plan of converting me to their doctrines or 2) withdrawn from the public discourse as they mutter among themselves about what to do about their marginal position on the current political landscape.

Either way, I can’t blame them. I sort of miss the interaction, but I can see why the more educated and intelligent members of the GOP (General Opposition Party) may need some quiet time right now. Things in general are going very, very well in this country, which sort of takes the wind out of the sails of those accustomed to being motivated by outrage and anger. (Except, of course, for the FOX news pundits, who make their living from fomenting outrage and anger.)

Everything but prices are inching up—housing starts, the stock market, the reputation abroad of the United States. The American economy is a slow, heavy barge, but it’s starting to turn. And while we’re still at war, we’re finally sending our young heroes into the places where our enemies reside. People have a few extra dollars in their paychecks to spend, new industries and thousands of new jobs are being created by the stimulus funds, and America is no longer in the business of torturing its accused enemies. It’s hard to sell doom and gloom when people are hopeful and proud.

Perhaps now is a time for all of us to reflect—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and those among the nearly 40% of Americans who—even in the historic 2008 elections—did not and do not vote.

If there is one thing our charismatic and inspiring young president stands for it’s the power of an individual to make a difference. Maybe this is as good a time as history will ever provide for all of us to take that lesson to heart and ask ourselves, “Is there something more I should be doing?”