Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Word for the Day: Tentherism

First, dear readers, I should mention that I’ll be traveling and busy with other projects for the next four weeks, so posts may be infrequent. As always, however, I appreciate your comments and read them with interest.

We shall have much to discuss as the summer progresses, however, as political opponents prepare themselves for battle during the late primaries and fall elections. Many of this year’s contests may be, shall we say, amusing.

It’s always interesting how the cultural shifts brought about by new technologies or new movements seem to spawn new vocabulary over night. In the past decade or so, the political “right” in this country has lost its center and shifted toward what used to be regarded, even by traditional conservatives, as the extreme. This has resulted in the creation of some new terms and the popularization of others, such as “birthers,” “anchor babies,” and “Blue Dog” Democrats—not to mention tea parties, tea bags, and the like.

A word that seems to be used more and more often is “tentherism,” the belief that the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution can be construed to greatly limit the powers of the federal government. The amendment reads as follows:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

As anti-government sentiment and right-wing extremism continue to grow, more and more people are beginning to ascribe extreme interpretations to some parts of the Constitution, including this one. Extreme “tenthers” interpret the Tenth Amendment in such a way as to essentially invalidate most, if not all, powers of the government that the document as a whole created.

This is one of issues at the root of all political discourse in this country: Are we Americans first? Or are we New Yorkers, Arizonans, Californians, or Floridians first? To what collective body do we most owe our allegiance?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Joe Barton: In His Defense

The horrific human and environmental tragedy now entering its third month in the Gulf of Mexico is reminiscent of a world at war: no matter how unusual or frightening or surreal the situation, people get used to it as a condition of daily life.

Like people do who have a chronic illness or who are in poverty or in prison, we adapt. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt. As a species, that is both our strength and our weakness.

It’s our strength because, being adaptable, we’re not easily defeated. Individuals can be broken, physically and psychologically, but communities tend to be tough and resilient. The people of the Gulf Coast endured the ravages of Katrina and were well on the way to recovery when this new catastrophe began. We admire their courage and fortitude, as some of the toughest and most defiant among them are paraded every evening in human interest segments on the national news.

But being adaptable is also our weakness because, once we get over the initial shock of a major tragedy, we tend to get used to it as just part of life. Our sense of outrage tends to fade as we become immersed in the reality of the situation and spend part of each day thinking about the unthinkable. We get the idea that we can tolerate this because we are tolerating it, and we may forget our moral obligation to do everything we can to ensure that it can never happen again.

Thus could a na├»ve but fundamentally honest man like Joe Barton, forgetting about dying pelicans and idle fishermen, slip and say something outrageously incorrect from a political point of view. While many segments of the American public were demanding the scalp of BP’s politically inept CEO Tony Hayward, Barton had the audacity to apologize to him for tough treatment he and his company were allegedly receiving on Capitol Hill.

The Republican establishment, in the person of House Minority Leader John Boehner, immediately trounced on Barton and forced him to apologize for his apology—which he did with all the enthusiasm of a school boy being forced by the teacher to apologize to the class for being late.

The statements Barton made, according to a quick public statement released by Boehner and other GOP leaders, were “wrong.”

But they weren’t wrong. What Barton said was simply a reflection of the truth as he sees it: that big business—and, more specifically, big oil—should be exempt from liability or accountability for its actions. As a good capitalist, Barton was merely expressing an honest opinion held by many if not most of the leaders of the Republican establishment: that so long as businesses make money and a lot of it, they should be beyond the criticism or interference of mere mortals acting in behalf of mere insignificant, inconsequential, individual human beings.

Barton was factually right in stating a position that is at the crux of the philosophical divide between the two major parties in America: When there is a perceived conflict between what’s good for individual, flesh-and-blood human beings (and other living creatures) and what’s good for corporate America and the very rich, damn the individuals.

Barton’s position may be morally wrong and, for the moment, politically incorrect; however, unlike more cunning members of Congress—like Boehner, Cantor, and Pence—his comments came from the heart.

Obviously, the extraordinary devastation of the Gulf oil spill can be embarrassing to those who’ve most enjoyed the benefits of the oil companies’ financial support and contributions. Undoubtedly there are many in Congress who’d like to see America forget about this whole messy business so they and their friends in the industry can get back to business as usual.

Thanks to Joe Barton for the timely reminder that, while the pain of this man-made catastrophe is endured by individual living creatures, there are powerful forces working to protect the status quo.

Friday, June 11, 2010

To Laugh or to Cry

Early in the G. W. Bush years, when red-blooded American conservatives were jumping on the bandwagon in support of invading Iraq, some decided the name "French fries" unjustly honored a nation that refused to back the war. In an effort to keep the cholesterol coming, some restaurants renamed the product "freedom fries." At the time, I thought the whole thing was silly.

Eight years later—after well over 4,000 Americans died in Iraq and another 30,000 were maimed or wounded—it was hard to see the humor. But apparently, as this slide show illustrates, Americans aren't the only ones inclined to use gastronomy to make silly political points.

Bon appetit

A spot of tea with your freedom fries, anyone?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Convenience of Chemistry

In a salon a few days ago, I watched the stylist at the next station giving a young woman a prom-like hairdo for a graduation party. The two women laughed and chatted while the cosmetologist sprayed strand after strand of the customer's long hair with sticky spray. The cloud that surrounded them made it appear that one or both of them were smoking. I found myself imagining those molecules of hair spray being sucked into both sets of lungs with every breath.

On the way across town afterward, I passed several people spraying for weeds. A pair of young men were working on the parking strip in front of an apartment house, shouldering large tanks of herbicide while aiming the business end of the hoses at the ground around them. Each was working in a cloud of vapor, and neither was wearing gloves or a mask. Further on, a man with bare feet was spraying weeds in the cracks of a driveway, undoubtedly dousing his skin with poison.

At this time and place, in America, there's a product to solve pretty much every little problem. Through the convenience of chemistry, we keep the little things in our lives tidy and neat. For a few pennies per application, we keep chemicals on hand to kill bugs, freshen upholstery, and banish headaches. Many of us scoff at precautions like washing fruits and vegetables, and those who pay extra for "organic" products are sometimes regarded as fanatics.

When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the public was stunned to learn of the horrific environmental effects of DDT and other common chemicals, as well as their risks to human health. Thus began a decade of awareness that, unfortunately, has now faded into cultural history. People are nothing if not adaptable. We get used to things. We become complacent. We get lazy. We convince ourselves that a little exposure here or a little risk there won't hurt anything.

We forget about the effects of accumulation over time. The weight of a penny is trivial; however, if you put a penny a day in a jar, by the end of a year the accumulated weight of the pennies will be over two pounds! Things add up. How much hair spray, I wonder, would accumulate in a woman's lungs after a year inhaling it on a regular basis?

Incidents of many types of disorders, from Multiple Sclerosis to autism to certain kinds of cancers, are inexplicably on the rise. Could there be a connection?

As a culture, too, we get used to things. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, the cultural and political will of the country (and, indeed, of the industrial world) was such that reparations and changes were demanded. Standards were improved for the structure and integrity of tankers. Meanwhile, however, offshore drilling became a new national pastime. As for reparations, Exxon played the waiting game well, using its boundless wealth to delay just payment for damages until conservative courts would take pity and limit their liabilities.

Now, twenty years later, we find that the oil industry has invested little-to-nothing in improving technology for stopping leaks and cleaning up spills. From booms to toxic chemical dispersants, we're pretty much stuck with the same alternatives that existed in 1989.

In our individual lives, sometimes chemical accidents occur that cause immediate and permanent damage. Far more often, though, we just live life complacently, not thinking about the cumulative effects of habitual carelessness. The thing we can't know is just how many assaults the body can take before its defenses are overwhelmed—before permanent and irreparable damage has been done.

The same can be said for the planet.

The area around Valdez, Alaska, and its people have not recovered from the damage they suffered in the disaster of 1989. With every passing day of the current oil-spill debacle, it seems more likely that large areas of the American South will never be restored to what they were a few short weeks ago. Lifestyles, livelihoods, the wetlands that protect great cities like New Orleans, and whole species of animals may disappear forever.

Complacency—simply not thinking about the things we don't want to think about—is convenient and comfortable. In an increasingly complex world, though, it's a luxury we really can't afford.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Texas, Textbooks, and the "War of Northern Aggression"

Maybe we should all learn more than we did in school about the Civil War. As this excellent article suggests, there were issues involved that still reverberate today in the public discourse—not least of which is federalism itself and the balance between the states and the central government.