Monday, May 31, 2010

Respect for the Uniform

Within the past month, one of my students mentioned that when his grandfather got off the plane from Vietnam in his soldier’s uniform, somebody spit on him at the airport. That’s the kind of memory that lingers, even to the third generation.

In retrospect, most thoughtful people now agree that Vietnam was a pointless war, waged for political purposes. Many of us believe that, too, about Iraq. But thankfully, the mood of the country is now such that every serviceman or –woman is considered a hero and treated with respect.

Not all are really heroes, of course. A friend who earned his Purple Heart as a Marine in Vietnam once said to me about those he knew who had died, “Some died because they were brave, some because they were cowards, and others because they were stoned. Some just happened to be in the wrong place.”

No doubt the same may be said for today’s “fallen heroes,” but they all come home with the same flag draped over their coffin. Like the rest of us, some are more worthy than others, but who are we to say?

The mood of the country today is to salute the flag (not burn it), tear up during the National Anthem, and say thanks to the men and women who serve.

But let’s not forget that moods are emotions, and emotions are fickle. Let us resolve never again to confuse a soldier with the mission he or she is sent to carry out.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Your Depressing Fact for the Day

According to a CNN interview with Louisiana's Senator David Vitter, there are 5,000 oil wells operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

Five thousand.

I've been unable to find out how many are operated by BP, but evidence is mounting that none of them should be. BP's safety record over time indicates that they should clean up their mess as best they can, fold up the tent, and liquidate their business. Undoubtedly, there are individuals in the company that should either be criminally prosecuted or should never be permitted to work in the oil industry again—or both.

Anyone taking bets on the odds of those things happening?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

America's New National Security Strategy

This article does a great job of summarizing the current administration's comprehensive approach to national security, from closing Gitmo to ending the war in Afghanistan responsibly.

Now if only Congress and the American public could take the long view instead of a reactionary, knee-jerk approach to international affairs, perhaps we could begin to look forward to the possibility of real peace and prosperity.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell . . .

. . . me Republicans want to vote NO on that, too!

The military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is so 1990s. Who cares any more if anyone is gay or straight? To those already in the military--officers and enlisted alike--shooting straight is a lot more important than being straight. In fact, a recent CNN poll indicates that almost 80% of Americans are in favor of repealing that pointless and antiquated piece of legislation.

Yet, true to form, Republicans continue to proudly carry their banner of obstructionism, pledging to oppose appeal of the policy.

And the beat goes on.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Palin, Obama, and the Gulf Oil Catastrophe

The headline in my ultra-conservative local paper this morning alludes to Sarah "Drill Baby Drill" Palin's latest nonsensical stab at Obama: that he's somehow in bed with the oil industry and therefore not as responsive as he should be to the regional and global disaster now unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

The only topic Palin should be quoted about is the one on which she seems to have some real authority—fashion. She could also make credible comments about shooting wildlife, should one be so inclined. By now she could certainly qualify as an expert on travel tips. But when it comes to the big questions, editors should confine themselves to quotes from educated people with the depth and intelligence to say something meaningful.

Regarding the shortcomings of the administration with respect to the mother-of-all oil spills, here's some interesting commentary by Thomas L. Friedman.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

BP: Too Big to Fail?

It’s been over a month since 11 men lost their lives when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, setting off an environmental disaster of biblical proportions.

Like a slow-motion nightmare, the whole situation just becomes more ominous and tragic by the day, as thousands of people try and fail to contain the damage or stop the gushing of oil and other contaminants into the most productive fisheries in the world.

Cable news networks snag environmental scientists, government officials, and oil company executives for in-depth interviews. Each guest, however, can only take one bite out of the elephant: this is a big, big story.

The little, one-minute human-interest pieces on half-hour network news shows really do a better job of giving people a sense of what this calamity is all about. It’s not about tons of oysters and shrimp that will never get to market or billions of dollars in lost revenue and cleanup costs. It’s not about numbers.

This story is about a woman who will soon file bankruptcy on her seaside restaurant, which now overlooks a gooey slick of toxic chemicals instead of a pristine beach. It’s about a tough-looking good-ol’ boy choking back tears as he tells of finding a young turtle of a highly endangered species gasping for air. It’s about third- and even fourth-generation fisher folk watching the only world they and their families have ever known disappear, for decades if not forever.

This is about fast, permanent, and measurable degradation of the planet by human actions. But mostly it’s about immeasurable suffering and despair. There’s human suffering, and there’s the suffering of millions upon millions of birds, sea mammals, fish, turtles, and countless other creatures—some of which will undoubtedly become extinct as their tiny, unique ecosystems are destroyed.

This is also, of course, a story about power, greed, and arrogance.

Is there anybody out there who still believes that the market is self-regulating and that companies can have the wisdom to protect their own interests, along with that of people and the planet? If so, which “planet” are they living on?

Clearly, when we get finished cutting some of the megabanks down to size, it’s time to consider whether there aren’t a lot of companies, too, that are “too big to fail.”

WH Security: Gate Crashers Still a Problem

Rats! It happened again.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rand Paul and a New Dialectic

As the winner in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Kentucky and a viable candidate for the Senate, Rand Paul has now taken a place on the national stage. Although generally regarded (even by his supporters) as a bit eccentric, he appears to be more articulate and media savvy than his father, Ron Paul, whose candidacy stirred things up during the 2008 presidential election.

This is likely to get interesting.

Less than 24 hours into his candidacy, the younger Paul was already facing tough questions about a remark he made to Louisville’s Courier-Journal regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964: namely, he said he was concerned about the part of the bill that required “private businesses” to desegregate.

Pundits and commentators spent the better part of the day, it seems, trying to get the candidate to say whether or not, had he been a Senator at the time, he would have voted for that bill. To his credit, Dr. Paul (who was all of one year old at the time) refused to answer the question directly and become snared in that trap. He passed the first exam in Candidacy 101 with flying colors.

But this whole question of “private” vs. “public” business is critical to some of the central issues being debated in this country right now:
  • Where, exactly, should the line be drawn between “public” and “private”?

  • When does a local issue merit national concern?

  • What should be the role of the federal government in protecting the interests of individual citizens?

As a spokesman for at least a segment of the libertarian community, which has been credited with launching the Tea Party movement, Rand Paul may stimulate frank and focused discussion of questions that, until now, have been merely undercurrents that inform attitudes but not understanding.

Let the games begin.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Arizona and Immigration: Popular Sentiments

In college, I spent a semester doing an internship in a middle school. At the time, I wasn’t all that many years older than the children around me, but it was already quite clear that there was a world of difference between young adolescents and adults. Whereas adults tended to respond to things as individuals, the middle school kids operated in packs—groups of friends, large or small, whose attitudes and emotions could turn on a dime. Like little schools of fish, they instantly shifted direction every time the currents changed.

Hate, adoration, shame, guilt, sorrow, curiosity: once touched by a feeling, kids of that age suddenly embrace it with an all-consuming intensity. Their emotions are raw and instinctual. Adults working in middle schools are constantly confronted with a fool’s dilemma: whether to try to reason with the little critters when they get caught up in their emotional storms or just wait for those storms to pass. In general, it’s best to pick one’s battles.

Some psychologists believe that all the people we’ve been in our lifetimes still reside within our brains—that under the right circumstances, we can revert to any stage of development, feeling and reacting as though we were that age again. I believe it. Ever since my brief sojourn as an adult in a middle school, I often see people in society revert to the same kind of emotional populism—and with the young adolescent’s disregard for reason, truth, or justice.

Since the ill-advised anti-immigration law was signed in Arizona, my electronic mailbox has been filling up with forwarded hate mail—some aimed at immigrants, some at people in government, some at anyone who might disagree with the “in-crowd.” The tone of these messages ranges from spiteful to vicious, with the “us-against-them” stance so typical of the middle-school mentality. (Mind you, I have asked each of these individuals, some of whom I’m related to, not to forward political or anti-government emails my way. The people who are still doing it, however, have a very different understanding than I do about what these messages stand for.)

There’s the one about a Mexican, an Arab, and a woman in a bar. In the punch line, the good ol’ American gal shoots the two men, saying, “In America, we’ve got so many immigrants that we don’t have to drink with the same ones twice.”

Charming, right? Humor can sugar coat the most bitter sentiment and get people to swallow it before they even realize it’s poison.

I received that hate message twice, by the way: once from a retired third-grade teacher and once from an engineer.

Another—from a sweet little man who looks like he wouldn’t swat a fly—purports to be from someone offering tickets to an event at a county fair. The message says that Robbie Knievel, son of Evel Knievel, “is going to try to jump over 1,000 Obama supporters with a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer.”

Then there’s the one forwarded by a nice, middle-aged lady who often sends me gorgeous photographs of flowers and sunsets and cute little puppies. The visual part of the message consists of six photos of trash strewn in a narrow gully—the same kind of ugly mess any of us can see within a mile or two of where we live. (What can I say—some people are pigs.) Titled “Arizona Super Highway,” the message expresses outrage at the “illegals” who allegedly dumped “water containers, food wrappers, clothing, and soiled baby diapers” along a 1/2-mile section of a trail. (No barrel cactuses are visible in the photos, which could have been taken anywhere, and one has to wonder how impoverished “illegals” would be able to afford bottled water and disposable diapers.)

I’ve seen some ugly things just stepping out of my car along the highways of America—including bloody syringes and used condoms—so I was not particularly impressed. But the image of the trash functions like any subliminal message, including the images of rats so skillfully embedded by Nazis in films about Jews: it creates a feeling of disgust that is linked in the mind of observers with a target population. Never mind truth and logic—it’s the feeling that matters.

There’s ugliness afoot in America, all right. But it’s not coming here from across the border.

A Note to My Readers

As you may have gathered from my recent silence, I've been just a tad busy lately. However, I've been reading your comments with interest, as always, and will have a few remarks soon. Meanwhile, please feel free to continue chatting among yourselves. Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Circular Firing Squad: Republicans and the Tea Party Populists

In the past ten days, the Republican Party has allowed two of its most experienced and dedicated politicians to be shoved out of the nest by extremist, doctrinaire Tea Party candidates.

Charlie Crist, long-time state politician and current governor of Florida, deflected a strong challenge from a Tea Party opponent by declaring that he would continue his campaign for the U.S. Senate as an Independent. And yesterday, Bob Bennett, a third-term Senator from Utah with impeccable conservative credentials, lost the opportunity to run again in 2010 when his state’s Republican convention ousted him in favor of two ultraconservative and entirely inexperienced Tea Party candidates.

Apparently Crist’s fatal errors as far the lunatic fringe of his party is concerned were 1) treating the President hospitably when he visited the state in February and 2) expressing support for the federal stimulus package—a bill that greatly mitigated the effect of the recession in Florida and literally saved public education there.

There was a time when politicians were expected to be diplomats—cordial to allies and opponents alike—and to vote their conscience on matters of extreme urgency. Not any more—not in today’s GOP (General Opposition Party). According to today’s conservative armchair observers, many of whom keep their radios and TVs tuned to incessant right-wing propaganda, the only right attitude is a cynical one and the only right answer to any matter of public policy is a resounding “NO!”

They say Bob Bennett’s crime was voting in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)—the infamous Wall Street “bail out.” Indeed he did—along with 30 other reluctant Republican Senators and a good many reluctant Democrats. An unhappy President Bush signed the bill into law. Nobody wanted to bail out those bastards on Wall Street, but it had to be done—just as the European Union now has to hold its nose and bail out Greece. The economy of the country was threatening to implode into a black hole that could have taken the whole world with it; drastic measures were required.

So Bob Bennett appears to be a victim of his times—a true conservative who had the misfortune to be in Congress at a time when he had to make a correct but unpopular decision.

There’s been a lot of chatter on television lately about how conditions may be right, come November, for a great Republican revival. At the rate things are going, though, Democratic candidates might just as well wait as long as possible to step into the fray. Most of them are well advised at this point to save their advertizing dollars and stand by, while the opposition candidates bicker among themselves and pick each other off.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Chaplains: Religion vs. Science in the Armed Services

Apparently there’s been a controversy brewing for some time now that, until today, escaped my notice: the question of whether military chaplains should be paid to proselytize to members of the armed services. It’s a case of being blind to things that are so familiar we take them for granted.

All the chaplains I’ve met or known personally have been kind, courageous people. I knew a Catholic priest with the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job when it came to human frailties. After eight years as a Navy chaplain, he served in the reserves and was recalled to active duty during the first Gulf War. When a favorite student of mine was in a coma after a car accident, the hospital chaplain was the very personification of peace and the courage we all needed to get past denial and accept the inevitable. I have nothing but admiration for those who lend their humanity to others in times of crisis.

What good chaplains use to help others in need are the same psychological tools that counselors and psychologists use: unconditional positive regard, active listening, reframing, critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), and various other techniques for individual and group counseling. Having this kind of intervention available in times of extremely fast change, crisis, and anxiety is known to be one of the best ways of preventing long-term psychological harm, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is entirely right and proper for the United States military to employ people able and willing to provide personnel with timely, appropriate psychological services.

And if they want to pray, too, fine. But praying—or proselytizing— should not be what they get paid to do.

In the aftermath of 9-11, two psychologists I know—a husband and wife team who own and operate a local clinic—went to Ground Zero as volunteers for a Red Cross trauma team. Working day and night for two weeks, they immersed themselves in the pain and trauma of surviving firefighters, witnesses, and recovery workers until they, themselves, were saturated with grief and horror and in need of psychological care. Then they were extracted and debriefed, while others skilled in crisis intervention took their places.

Although they are not religious, the work this couple did in Manhattan is no different from the work done by chaplains on a battle field. With academic degrees in psychology and counseling, as well as specific knowledge of how trauma affects the brain, they may have been more aware and deliberate in their use of crisis intervention strategies than a chaplain without similar training. But people who successfully help victims of trauma and crisis, regardless of their background, are using the same skills.

Anyone can pray. But not everyone can employ the skills and knowledge required to provide psychological services. Call them what you will, it’s those skills and that knowledge for which counselors and crisis intervention specialists should be employed by the military—not their religious orientation.