Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Farewell until September

For the past few weeks, I’ve been busy with remodeling projects in and around my house, and those will be ongoing through the summer. That’s one reason I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from this blog for the next three months.

The other is this: There just doesn’t seem to me to be much to discuss right now on the political front. With Donald Trump’s ridiculous little attention-getting stunt over and done with, and Newt in trouble with conservatives for telling the truth, the focus for Republicans for the next few weeks will be on trying to identify a feasible candidate to run against Barack Obama in 2012. With Tea Party extremists ready to “primary” any candidate who fails their “litmus test” for fanaticism, that’s likely to be a painful process for the Party of No. For my part, I’ll leave them to go at it.

In a recent interview, Bill Moyers remarked that among subjects considered inappropriate for discussion in polite company in America is the fact that this country has become an oligarchy—a land in which a minority of the very rich and powerful make many of the decisions for the vast majority of us. With the help of fundamentalist churches, Fox News, and Citizens United, the Republican Party has become their party—of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

For anyone who has closely observed the behavior of Republican governors and legislatures since the last election—from union busting in Wisconsin to takeover of local governments in Michigan to mandatory drug testing of state employees in Florida—it must be obvious what greater consolidation of power in the hands of the GOP would mean at the Federal level. We got a taste of it under George Bush—to the continuing detriment of the U.S. and world economies, among other things. But now—with a Republican Party confident enough in its own power to talk openly about demolishing every social support program in America, from minimum wage to Medicare, I can no longer tolerate the tendency of even well-informed and well-meaning political observers to treat the two parties as equivalent.

The two parties are not equivalent.

One wants to consolidate the power of and influence of the already richest and most powerful—an elite group that includes oil barons, bank presidents, Wall Street CEOs, and owners of insurance companies (like Governor Rick Scott, whose company will be paid handsomely for all those unnecessary drug tests in Florida).

The other, the Democratic Party, works for the well-being and prosperity of everyone—for values like equal and universal education, the right to bargain collectively, freedom to vote, and—yes—access to quality health care for everyone.

Between these two world views, operating from very different value systems, there is little room for compromise (as even the president must know by now) and no moral equivalency at all.

So call me partisan—as I most assuredly am. But I no longer have any patience with batting around Democratic values and Republican lies as though the two are the same. Clearly there is no longer any sense in trying to pretend that the differences between, for example, a John Boehner and a Nancy Pelosi are just a difference of opinion about how things should be done. The differences are between what is right—morally right—and who matters.

Over the next three months, I will decide how to move forward in terms of my new, deeper understanding of the real political dynamics at work in America.

Have a great summer everyone!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

When Death is a Beginning

It’s not often that we in America experience something unique in our long history. The death of Osama bin Laden is such an event.

Mass murderers and tyrants have died before, lifting the burdens of terror and unresolved grief from the shoulders of the people they oppressed. But never before has a single individual been so focused on the destruction of Americans for just being Americans. Never before has anyone committed such atrocities on America’s soil, ships, and outposts. Never before has evil been so personal for us.

Osama bin Laden robbed America of more than our security. In the past ten years, we’ve suffered immeasurable losses, indignities, and moral failures as a result of our government’s clumsy and incompetent response to his actions. We’ve engaged in two horrific wars, lost privacy, and tolerated torture in our name.

Bin Laden is dead, but we Americans have much work to do if we are to reclaim the integrity we lost as a nation after the events of 9-11. Now if we can just get beyond the pettiness of partisan politics and the habit of focusing our national attention on the antics of on nasty, infantile personalities (The Donald comes to mind), perhaps we can make the most of this new day dawning.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Common Sense and the Role of Government

Starting in August, an airline that loses your bag will have to reimburse you for the baggage fee you paid to have it safely delivered with you to your destination. The airline can’t lose your bag and keep your money, as is currently the practice.

Why will the airline have to refund your fee? Because the government says so.

That’s why we need government.

For many years, Americans have bought into the notion—a common theme among Republicans—that government regulation isn’t necessary because “the market” takes care of everything.

Well, the market doesn’t take care of everything. In the words of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “Competition has not taken care of these problems. We would not be addressing them if competition had done that.”

Airlines are businesses, and their moral compass is profit. Without pressure of some kind to be fair, a business such as an airline has no incentive to do something that may be inconvenient and unprofitable, such as refunding a fee for a lost bag.

Banks had no reason to stop escalating the already usurious interest rates they charged for credit card purchases, or to refund unfair or unwarranted fees and fines, until the government stepped in and provided some firm, fair guidelines. Without government, processors have no incentive to be sure our foods are safe. It’s government that makes sure no company can dump toxic waste in your back yard—convenient as that might be for the company.

It’s an imperfect system, but it beats saying to a major corporation, “Please, sir or ma’am, I know I’m only one person, and I’m not rich or famous or powerful, but would you please be kind enough to . . . .”

Good luck with that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dragons Are Lucky . . . and Other Silly Beliefs

We all have our weaknesses. One of mine, I confess, is Mahjong. During the past few weeks, while my husband has been laid up after knee surgery, we’ve spent more time at home than usual. Unfortunately, home is where my computer is, and my computer is where I play Mahjong.

This addictive little game simply requires the player to click on sets of matching tiles, arranged in different configurations, to make them disappear. Depending on their location, the tiles may be “free” or blocked by other tiles that have to be removed first. There are 36 sets of 4 tiles each for a total of 144.

It sounds easy, but the tiles are often arranged in such a way that, as you get further into the game, it’s harder to find matching tiles that are not blocked.

With practice, a player develops strategies that improve performance but also expectations that have nothing to do with reality. For instance, I’ve noticed that I’m likely to win if I start a game by matching dragon tiles—or at least I feel that I’ve noticed it, which is a very different thing.

Actually, when I’m thinking with the rational part of my brain—the frontal cortex—I’m absolutely certain that my percentage of wins over time is about the same whether I begin a game by matching dragons or by matching any of the 35 other sets of tiles. But my deep, old, emotional brain—the limbic system—still gives me a little jolt of confidence and satisfaction if, in the first moves of a game, I kill a few dragons.

With all the chatter in the media about politics, no one ever seems to allude to this absolutely critical distinction between intellectual and emotional thinking. Barring a serious brain disorder, most of us use both parts of our brain every day, switching back and forth between using intuitive or emotional “logic” (which can be very useful in some circumstances) and using actual, fact-based reasoning skills—which is the only way to understand things having to do with, among other things, money.

Thus we have a situation in which a goodly number of well-intentioned Americans march off half-cocked to Tea Party rallies, chanting about budget cuts and tax relief. The Pied Piper leading this pathetic parade is Big Business, represented by Dick Armey, the Koch brothers, and others who are either very rich or who have been (like Scott Walker) bought and paid for by the very rich. Relieved (in large part by the Bush tax cuts) of their responsibilities to help fund the government, they’ve convinced a very large contingent of the “little people” that they should panic about the government going broke and make up the deficits by sacrificing their own meager, middle-class earnings and benefits.

Thinking with their emotional brains, millions of Americans now routinely vote against their own interests, victims of years of successful GOP propaganda that says the country is broke and only more sacrifices by the poor and middle class—and even more tax relief for the very, very rich—can save the country from bankruptcy.

In fact, as all reputable economists know and have been saying, spending is good during a serious recession. Injecting more money into the system fuels a recovery by supporting manufacturing, small business, and other vital aspects of the economy. Cutting taxes and increasing revenue for common folk so that they can buy more food, clothes, and cars makes sense. Increasing revenue by allowing corporations and the very, very rich to pay their fair share also makes good sense.

What doesn’t make sense is for General Electric, Exxon, and Wall Street financial firms to suck money out of the economy while paying little or nothing in taxes.

But it’s no use trying to tell that to Tea Party folks. They’re too busy marching off to kill dragons.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Affordable Health Care: One Year Old Today

My husband recently had knee surgery. (My role as caregiver is part of the reason I haven’t been posting much recently.) He’s mending nicely now, and it looks like that knee might be good for another half million miles or so.

The whole episode might have ended tragically, however. A few days after surgery, the patient woke me up at 2 a.m. It seemed like he was urgently trying to tell me something, but he couldn’t speak. He just kept starting sentences that led nowhere, like “I, . . . uh . . . feeling . . . .” Then he’d start again, without ever telling me what was wrong. Figuring that driving him to a hospital would be faster than calling an ambulance, I got him into the car and off we went. He wasn’t thrilled about going, but I was in no mood to negotiate.

Nurses at the hospital couldn’t get a blood pressure reading at first, but when they did, my husband’s blood pressure was a very dangerous 240/180. Drugs brought it down quickly, and he seems to have suffered no ill effects from the incident. His doctors have two schools of thought on what caused the episode, including the possibility of a small blood clot caused by the surgery that went to the brain. Happily, in any case, he did not suffer a stroke.

We have excellent insurance—partly because I have made quality health care a priority throughout my working life. At various times, I considered the possibilities of opening a small business or doing free-lance writing and consulting work. However, the need to feel secure about health care kept me working for large employers who could offer quality insurance plans. Those decisions might have been responsible for saving my husband’s life the night his blood pressure went through the roof.

People without insurance hesitate to go to a hospital. They know that even a short visit or a minor problem can break their budget for the month, or for the year. A longer stay or a serious illness can mean bankruptcy. So they wait to be sure something is wrong. By the time they are convinced they have no choice but to get to a doctor or hospital, they may be very ill—or dying.

Had we waited to see if my husband’s head cleared the other night, he might have been among the 45,000 known deaths that result every year from our antiquated, inadequate, and often cruel health care system.

The good news is that one year ago today, things started getting better. By the time the Affordable Health Care Act is fully implemented in 2014, no one in America will have to risk death or disability out of fear of getting help when they need it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Peter King is Right about Radicalization

For once, I agree with a GOP representative. The danger of violent, “lone wolf” extremists operating in America is real. These are often people with strong but perverted religious affiliations. Examples, unfortunately, abound, including the following:

Timothy McVeigh
Scott Roeder
James von Brunn
Jared Loughner
Seung-Hui Cho

However, King doesn’t need to knock himself out. People with much better credentials than he has study and report regularly on the dangers of radicalization and dangerous extremism.

Those who want to do something about these dangers—rather than simply adding to them by stirring up hatred and paranoia—can donate to the cause here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How to Increase the Number of Abortions in America . . .

. . . defund Planned Parenthood.

The nature of my job is such that several times a year, teens or young adults confide in me about unplanned pregnancy. Their fears are many:
  • What will my parents say?

  • Will my friends or partner reject me?

  • Will I be able to continue my plans for school and a career?

Girls worry about pain and physical complications. Boys worry about losing their freedom or figuring out how to provide for a child. Kids in these situations often feel alone, terrified, and trapped. Many consider abortion as a way out of what may feel like an impossible situation.

In my community, probably the majority of young people in this situation find their way to Planned Parenthood for a free pregnancy test. But what they get there is so much more.

First, they have an opportunity to share their dilemma with caring, professional adults who will not judge or condemn them. That often gives them the courage to share information with others, including family and friends. Once their "secret" is shared, the sense of panic subsides.

Secondly, they receive objective, factual information about how to care for themselves, how to care for an unborn child, and how to avoid unexpected pregnancies in the future. Should they choose to continue the pregnancy—and the vast majority do—they get information they need about community services to help them and their child.

Virtually every week, a story hits the national news about the horrendous life or death of an infant or toddler at the hands of tragically unsuitable parents—parents who may be addicts, mentally ill, or abysmally ignorant about a child's needs. If such parents never conceived, the world would be spared a great deal of suffering.

I have no doubt whatever that without Planned Parenthood, there would be a lot more unplanned pregnancies than there are—and many, many more of them would end in abortion.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Housekeeping Note

It's come to my attention that comments don't seem to be posting to this blog. We're working to resolve the problem. Please be patient, and please keep track of your comments so you can submit them again as soon as the problem is corrected.

Thanks for your patience!


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Teachers and Unions

My “day job” is counselor at a public high school. It’s always been gauche to talk about salaries, but I think maybe it’s time in America that we did. After sixteen years with my district, I reached the top of the salary scale four years ago—meaning I can’t get any more raises, no matter how long I work or how many credits I accumulate. My base salary is just over $64,000. (The salary scale is lower in many states, and nationwide, starting salaries for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees average just over $30,000 a year.)

I have good insurance, and my employer helps to make it affordable—but I still pay more than $800 a month. With only twenty years’ experience in public education (despite a good deal of previous experience teaching in colleges and private schools), my retirement income would be only a few hundred dollars a month, if it weren’t for my own investments. I have a master’s degree and enough additional credits for a second master’s and a Ph.D. I have paid for all those credits and educational clock hours out of my take-home pay—which, after taxes and all the various deductions, has averaged about $2,600 a month in recent years.

Compared to many people in the private sector, I do get generous vacations—a week in the spring, two weeks during the holidays, and as much as seven weeks during the summer. However, I’m always as close to my job as the nearest computer and—like the vast majority of my colleagues in education—I have spent many a summer taking classes, working in study groups, and otherwise honing my skills and working to improve education for our kids.

When I chose education as a career, I knew I’d never be rich. But like most people in my profession, I don’t do it for the money.

For the past two or three decades, members of the general public have heard very little good about American public education. Much of what they think they know is untrue. (I urge anyone who really wants to be informed about this topic to read an excellent book entitled The Manufactured Crisis, which is as relevant today as when it was published fifteen years ago.) Lately, one more negative myth has been added to the compendium of public misinformation about public education: that teachers and others who work with kids are spoiled, wasteful, and a burden to beleaguered state and municipal governments.

It’s not true, folks. From what I know as an “insider,” most school districts are about as lean as any bureaucracy can possibly be, and nobody in public education gets rich on the basis of their income. (There is ample evidence, too, for anyone who cares to look, that the same is true of public employers in general, including police and fire departments, public maintenance workers, and local governments.)

What we get from our unions—and it’s well worth the hundreds of dollars I pay annually in dues to my local, state, and national affiliations—is respect. In my district, as in many I know of, the relationship between district administrators and the staff who work with kids (including members of other unions, such as classified and secretarial staff) is an easy, simple, respectful way to communicate our needs, desires, and observations.

If I have a gripe or a good suggestion, I pass it on to my building representative, who passes it on to the local union president, who brings it up in regular meetings with district superintendants. The superintendants, in turn, may consult the elected school board. Questions are asked and answered, compromises are made. As with all compromises, people don’t always get everything they ask for—but they do get a respectful hearing and the opportunity to bargain for incremental improvements in benefits or working conditions. Morale is good, and everyone is able to focus most of their energy at work on the one thing that matters—our kids.

Virtually all the married teachers I know have spouses who also work, and almost all the single ones have second jobs. Education is no way to get rich—unless you’re talking about something other than money.

In general those us in public education get most of what we need to continue to serve kids and communities and very little beyond that. It’s a no frills kind of business. But if it weren’t for our unions, many more of us would get less—perhaps much less—than we really need to be fulfilled—personally and professionally—and to keep the focus where it belongs.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Biggest Losers

In cruising my usual web magazine sites for current headlines, I ran across this—not once but three times: "Todd Palin Loses Snowmobile Race."

The Palins seem to be the only family in America getting famous and rich (very, very rich) by losing.

So the husband of Alaska's former half-governor and failed vice-presidential candidate lost a race.

And who won? Who cares?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Victims of Our Own Success

Since the 1940s, when my father was a stalwart member of the AFL-CIO, membership in unions in the United States has tumbled from over a third of the American work force to somewhere around 8%. The vast majority of union members today, like me, are public workers such as teachers and other school employees, police officers, fire fighters, and transportation workers.

By the time my father joined the labor force, most of the workers’ rights necessary for a productive, civilized society were in place. The right of workers to bargain collectively with employers had been established through the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. By the end of 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act had guaranteed most employees a limited work week with rights to overtime pay, a minimum wage, and some (albeit inadequate) safety requirements.

Like most of his generation, my father knew better than to take these basic rights for granted. After all, he well remembered that his mother—my grandmother—had put in 16-hour days, six days a week, standing on concrete floors and steaming herself over industrial laundry and ironing machines. Twenty years of that enabled her, a young widow, to keep and raise all four of her children. She was lucky—she didn’t work with the toxic chemicals that likely condemned some of her coworkers to an early and painful death.

People forget. People fail to think about things that aren’t immediately apparent. People tend to take their rights for granted—until someone takes them away.

Two generations of comfort and prosperity have allowed the American middle class to forget that the American labor movement created the “middle class” in the first place. Before that, there were the very wealthy few, who controlled business and industry, and a vast ocean of poor people, who basically worked to empower and enrich the already rich and powerful.

Two decades of relentless propaganda from the far right (amplified, in the past few years, by Fox News) has convinced large segments of the American public that union workers—ordinary folks like my father and me—are enemies of prosperity, greedy and spoiled and responsible for the national debt.

Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs by the hundreds of thousands have been shipped abroad, where workers (many of them children) work as virtual slaves. Rights to unionize have been greatly curtailed in many states, and Republicans in Congress rail against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would help prevent employers from intimidating employees who may want to bargain collectively but do not currently have that right.

Middle-class complacency has allowed the interests of big business and industry to virtually extinguish organized labor in the private sector.

Now, however, in Madison, Wisconsin, the battle may have finally begun for American workers to push back and remind the nation of that often repeated but seldom heeded quote by poet George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why Trying to Talk to Republicans Drives Me Nuts

Last night, I talked with a woman who is dear to me for a number of reasons. Walking her dog recently, she took a very bad fall, smashing her face against a curb. Besides bruises and gashes in her lip, she suffered serious damage to several teeth that will require oral surgery and orthodontia to fix. She’s in pain, but her main concern at this point seems to be about money. You see, she has chosen to work for decades for a nonprofit agency that offers no insurance plan.

An evangelical Christian and extreme conservative, this fundamentally good woman is well aware of my politics. Thus, she followed this disclosure with the following remark, seething with hostility: “But I don’t want to be forced to buy insurance. I don’t want the government butting into my personal business.” She’s talked to people in her small town, she added, and feels that she’s convinced the city to pay for her dental and medical bills. She thinks they’ll accept liability (perhaps as a way of avoiding a potentially more expensive law suit) because their sidewalk was in poor repair.

Given the number of times I have to bite my tongue when talking to people like her, it’s a wonder I haven’t needed oral surgery myself.

Here’s what I didn’t say.

First, I contend that, at this point, this woman’s choices are no longer just her personal business. They also affect her neighbors, whose tax money will (if she gets her way) go toward paying her bills. It would have been a waste of time to point out that her fellow citizens might have a legitimate objection to having to pay for her clumsy mistake—not to mention her lack of responsibility in choosing not to buy insurance.

Second, there would have been no point in telling her that if it weren’t for the Republicans, no one would be “forced” to buy insurance. Opposed to the very idea of trying to solve this decades-old civic problem regarding health care, the GOP was particularly determined to see that nothing constructive got done under the current president. So they opposed every blessed aspect of the legislation on principle—including, most vehemently, the notion of a tax-based plan like Medicare. Thus, the compromise legislation that emerged—while a great improvement over the inadequate and socially irresponsible status quo—is far from perfect. (It did, however, succeed in protecting the “rights” of the insurance companies—the Republicans’ real constituents—to continue to be obscenely well compensated for sucking the blood out of people with ridiculously high premiums.)

Finally, I didn’t point out the obvious fact that living in community—even a community of two—always involves having to follow some rules. There are just things that responsible individuals have to do for the well-being of everyone —from getting a dog license in some communities to paying their fair share for roads and bridges.

On principle, I believe that citizens of a democracy have a duty to speak out about their convictions. Sometimes, though, when a relationship is important, you have to keep your mouth shut.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Devil We Know

Now that the Egyptian people have rid themselves of Hosni Mubarak, the world holds its breath to see who—or what—will take his place.

In America, speculation about what a post-Mubarak Egypt will look like spans the gamut, from President Obama’s cautiously optimistic hopes for democracy to the predictably hysterical babbling of Glenn Beck, whose theory of a plot to establish a world-wide “caliphate” is too much for even Bill O’Reilly to swallow. Many seem to worry about a small minority group called the Muslim Brotherhood, which is dedicated to the notion that all human enterprises—from the individual and the family to nation-states—should be run according to the dictates of the Qur’an.

While over 90% of the Egyptian people profess to be Muslim, by and large they are accustomed to a secular state. The most influential element in the country at this time appears to be the military, which is well respected. Historically, Egyptians have been little prone to seeing blind obedience as a virtue or to elevating religious leaders to cult-like positions of authority. There’s no apparent reason to believe they might start now—or that Egypt is likely to become another hotbed of dangerous religious extremism, like Iran.

But we in America have plenty of reason to worry about extreme fundamentalist religion, and I’m not talking about Islam. Evidence is mounting that the greatest danger to American democracy is a form of radical Christianity called “dominionism,” which has already gained enormous power and is exerting terrifying influence over government in this country.

Dominionism—one of the driving forces behind the conservative movement in America—asserts that Biblical law should be the basis of all aspects of society, from the conduct of individuals to all branches of government. This extremist philosophy was a primary factor in the abuses of the presidency of G. W. Bush and has already deeply infiltrated Congress and the Supreme Court. For those who are aware, its influence is evident in the social agenda of the new Republican House majority, in the rants of conservative talk-show pundits, and in the demands of Tea Party activists to drastically reduce taxes and limit the powers of the federal government

Chris Hedges, author of American Fascism: The Christian Right and the War on America, has this to say about the movement: “Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. . . . This movement is bent on our destruction.”

Anyone who thinks this statement is hyperbole—or just a leftist conspiracy theory comparable to the paranoid fantasies so often floated from the right—really should read the book.

Yes, America, we do have much to fear from a radical religious movement bent on the destruction of democracy.

But that has nothing whatsoever to do with Egypt.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Considering the Source

Apparently Sarah Palin has been critical of the president of late regarding his handling of the crisis in Egypt.

Would someone please ask her: Has she figured out yet whether Africa is a country or a continent?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Ethics of Debate

In August of 2008, in Portland, Oregon, a women’s team lost a softball game and gained the admiration of the entire country. When an opposing player hit a home run but collapsed with a knee injury on first base, members of the Central Washington University team carried her around the bases so that she could have the home run she’d earned by hitting the ball out of the park.

The CWU team lost their shot at the season playoffs, but there were no regrets. “We just wanted to help her,” said one of the players who did.

Thus Sara Tucholsky, a graduating senior, was able to experience the first and only home run of her entire softball career. But that’s not what made the story so remarkable. The amazing thing was that young American players would risk losing—because all too commonly, Americans believe in winning at any cost.

America is an adversarial nation. In sports, winning teams are celebrated like conquering armies who saved the nation. In courts, attorneys are judged by their win-loss record—not by how much of the truth of a situation they are able to bring to light. In politics after an election, the losing party is focused on regaining power, not on solving real problems for real people. (Readers may decide for themselves if that hasn’t been much more true in recent years of one party than the other.)

In America, “winning” is all about trouncing opponents—not about doing the right thing.

And so it is with competitive speech and debate. The purpose of the exercise is to win. And debaters who hone the skills necessary—such as persuasion, refutation, and judicious use of facts and statistics—may go on to become attorneys or politicians, writers or news commentators. By the time they do, the heady feeling of winning may well have become an end in itself.

This is where ethics come in. There’s a world of difference between an effective argument and an ethical one—between winning an argument and furthering truth and understanding.

To develop an effective argument, speakers and writers have to consider a number of factors, including audience, thesis, and purpose.

Audience is the group of people for whom a message is intended. An effective message is one to which people (i.e., members of the audience) listen and respond; an ethical one is targeted to an appropriate audience and delivers the same, straightforward message to everyone.

A thesis is a simple statement of the main idea. An effective thesis is one that people believe; an ethical one is based on a genuine preponderance of evidence.

The purpose of an argument is its intended impact on the audience. An effective argument moves people emotionally and inspires them to act; an ethical one enlightens and inspires the audience to act in positive ways.

Americans are busy people, working more hours per week than citizens of any other developed nation. That makes it understandable—if not necessarily right—that typical Americans don’t take the time to follow some issues closely. Consequently, they tend to be inordinately influenced by snippets of speeches they hear on the car radio or thirty-second ads on TV. Sadly if understandably, most Americans often don’t take much time to think.

That’s a fact. What it means is that the American audience tends to be vulnerable to public arguments that may have simple or erroneous theses or purposes that benefit only the wealthy and elite—those who can afford to buy the ads.

Perhaps Americans ought to pay closer attention to politics and public arguments. On the other hand, perhaps a greater burden of ethical responsibility belongs to those who have mastered the art of winning their hearts and minds.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snowmagedden 2011

Appearing on CNN today, renowned physicist Michio Kaku explained why—contrary to what we might expect—global warming often results in more snow and rain.

Simply put, warmer air around the tropics results in more water evaporating into the air—only to fall somewhere else as rain. Snow storms occur when warm, moisture-laden air currents collide with frigid arctic air; then the water droplets freeze and fall as snow.

For decades, scientists have predicted that, as the average temperature of the earth rises, storms of all kinds would become more frequent and more severe.

They were right. Just ask anyone from New Orleans, Bangladesh, or New England circa 2011.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sticks and Stones . . . and Lethal Language

A year and a half after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, who had been a frequent target of Glenn Beck’s savage rhetoric, a sociology professor in New York seems to be in the cross hairs of this criticism. Now she’s dealing with death threats.

Violent rhetoric can seep into society like poison gas and, directly or indirectly, result in tragedy and death.

The Limits of Debate

Throughout high school and college, I was involved in competitive speech and debate. My first job after college was as a high school debate coach. Skillful debate requires logic, research, and critical thinking. I think it should be a required subject in schools.

In a debate class, as in law school, students are required to be able to argue both sides of an issue. I remember a year when the national debate topic was nuclear weapons. I got pretty good at arguing against disarmament treaties to limit the number of warheads in the world.

Did I believe governments should ignore the horrific dangers involved in stockpiling nukes? Not for a minute. But regardless if we debated on the affirmative or negative side, debate was just a game. We were arguing for points, not power.

The danger is that people who get good at debate can forget the critical difference between winning and being right—both factually and morally.

Persuasion—making others believe what you’re saying—is an essential skill in debate. It requires appealing to the emotions, as well as the intellect, of the audience. Like any tool, it can be used for different purposes. You can use a hammer to pound a nail—or to hit someone in the head.

As citizens of a participatory, democratic government, we are morally obliged to look beyond the arguments—no matter how logical or persuasive—to see what their effects may be in the real world.

And what yardstick should we use to measure those effects? There can be no other than the impact of policies—the real-world results of successful debating—on individual human beings and the other living organisms that share our planet.

Looking at the impacts of arguments is not part of being a good debater. It’s part of being a compassionate, responsible human being.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Crazy in America

Major events are always determined by not one but several factors. Since January 8, when 20 people were killed and wounded in Tucson, much of the public discussion has focused on the availability and lethality of weapons. That’s a topic worth debating.

But in a recent poll, more than half the people who responded felt that the “mental health system” in America was a primary cause of the tragedy.

What mental health system? In America, the vast majority of people who are mentally ill can be found in one of two places: in prison or on the streets of major metropolitan cities.

People in the grips of a serious mental illness typically cannot hold a job, so the very limited and convoluted health care system we had until last year has left the vast majority with no resources for getting help.

Public funding for any kind of social programs, including those that help the mentally ill, are constantly being cut from inadequate to nonexistent, thanks to a culture that does not see taxation as a legitimate way to generate the kind of income government needs to fund the programs we need or want.

The American culture is about thirty years behind science in understanding the biology of mental illness. The 16th-Century definition of “insanity” used by the courts means that most anti-social actions committed by people who are mentally ill are treated as crimes. In a truly civilized country, people like Jared Loughner would be confined to a mental facility for the rest of their lives. (As of now, there is no cure for paranoid schizophrenia, and those who have the disorder cannot be trusted to manage it themselves.)

As it stands, however, our choices as a society are to lock the severely mentally ill up in cages with the most vicious criminals, murder them by government, or warehouse them indefinitely until they are paroled or released at some future time. None of those are rational or compassionate alternatives.

It’s very common for psychotic disorders to “present,” or become evident, in the late teens and early twenties. That’s why a Jared Loughner can seem perfectly normal to high school classmates but loonie to those who know him after graduation. Many of the most seriously ill who are dangerous to themselves and others commit violent acts in their early twenties—or at least fail to become independent, productive members of society. I can’t count the number of families I’ve known in anguish because a loved one desperately needed psychiatric help but could not afford it.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, young adults who do not have their own insurance can at least be covered under their parents’ plans until they are 26. That means the Jared Loughners of this world can afford to get psychiatric help.

It’s not a complete solution to the problem by any means—but at least it’s a very good start.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Sarah Should Have Said

Sarah Palin’s not the only office seeker guilty of using loaded language (pardon the pun) in recent months. Not once but several times during her campaign, Sharron Angle made the statement that resorting to “Second Amendment remedies” would be an appropriate response to an election that didn’t swing in favor of the Tea Party. And Michele “Locked and Loaded” Bachmann has routinely asserted that it is the right of conservatives to “rise up” against their elected government. These voices, added to those of extreme right-wing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have created a veritable fog of hostile rhetoric filled with violent imagery.

But Sarah is in a league of her own. You’d think a woman whose every twitch and twitter is duly reported by the right wing and echoed throughout the mainstream media would learn to choose her words. But what Sarah thinks, Sarah says.

On her web page, Palin literally targeted twenty House Democrats who were up for reelection by showing a map with their districts covered with the cross hairs of a weapon. Eighteen of the twenty did not return to Congress, and one got shot: Gabrielle Giffords. The headline of the widely broadcast image read, “Don’t Retreat. Reload.” The implication couldn’t be clearer. Anyone na├»ve enough to think there aren’t people who would take that literally doesn’t know squat about human nature.

When a mentally deranged young man literally put Gabby Giffords in the cross hairs and put a bullet through her brain, Sarah might have expressed some degree of the horror and shock felt by the rest of the country. She might have said something like this:

“It’s clear that there are legitimate questions to be asked and answered about what contributed to this deadly rampage. I do not believe that gun-related images and metaphors alone would inspire this kind of violence. But in the interest of ensuring that violent rhetoric does not spur extremists to commit violent acts, I call upon my fellow gun-rights supporters to be careful of using language that, if taken literally, would suggest that bullets should be used to settle political differences.”

But no. Not a word about toning down what every rational person in America agrees is hate speech. Rather, Sarah cast herself as the victim, a martyr comparable to Jews tortured in killed in the radical belief that they habitually murdered children.

Rather than getting defensive, the former half-governor could have used the occasion to say something socially responsible. But as with every other event that occurs in her world, this event was essentially all about Sarah.

That’s what we expect from many of our superstars. But from our public representatives—and those who claim to want to serve—we should expect a great deal more.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Guns and American Entitlement

When I was a little girl, my dad sometimes took me shooting. We’d go someplace near the edge of town, set up a row of cans, and use bullets to punch holes in them. On those days, I imagined myself putting every bullet where I wanted it to go (and sometimes it happened that way). I wanted to be Annie Oakley.

I enjoyed spending time with my dad, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought the whole exercise was rather pointless. There are lots of ways to hit targets—with arrows and darts, for example. I wondered then, as I wonder now, why so many people are passionate about heavy, noisy, expensive, and dangerous weapons—people who, like my dad, didn’t hunt and had no enemies against whom to defend himself.

I married a man who grew up on the prairie and whose father had some good reasons to carry guns—mostly to defend against coyotes, as well as making a little money on the side selling pelts. My husband’s father was a mechanic who loved anything made of metal that had moving parts—the more complicated the better.

My husband inherited his love of gadgets and became a mechanical engineer, as well as a locally well-known expert on guns. When his first child was a girl, someone asked him if he was disappointed not to have had a son. Bemused by the question, he responded, “Why would I be disappointed? I can teach her to shoot just as well as I can a boy.”

About three years ago, my husband and I went with my oldest stepson and daughter-in-law to an event at a gun club shooting range. Hundreds of automatic weapons were laid out on long tables, and anyone could shoot them for the price of the ammunition. Hundreds of people, mostly men and boys, lined up at every table to take a turn pummeling targets with streams of bullets. I took my turn, and at almost every family gathering since then, someone says, “You know, Mom has shot a Thompson submachine gun.” Only in America would that be a badge of honor more worthy of mention that any of the hundreds of other quirky things I’ve done in my life.

Last 4th of July, my husband and I went with three of our sons and a family friend to a local shooting range. The men in my family all top six feet (some by several inches), and I thought even the range master looked a little concerned as we started unloading armfuls of armaments from the car. He soon relaxed, however, when the shooting started. My husband has seen to it that all his sons learned early how to handle guns, and very few of the hundreds of rounds shot that day missed the bull’s eye (except the ones I fired).

So I understand how integrated guns are in American culture. And I say something has to change.

The slaughter by guns of innocent people is so routine in this country that, unless the victims are famous, it takes at least several deaths to even make the national news. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 people every year in the U.S. are killed by gunfire, not to mention the additional thousands who are wounded and maimed.

Thanks to the relentless, radical, well-funded defense of weapons by the National Rifle Association, it has been politically incorrect for many years to even mention common-sense controls that might keep guns out of the hands of violent and crazy people (not to mention children). Thanks to the national paranoia created by extremists and conspiracy theorists, a good percentage of Americans hold the irrational belief that the government wants to disarm its citizens in order to control them. Right-wing politicians have succeeded in making issues regarding “gun control” pretty much synonymous with burning the American flag and killing babies.

Enough. This ridiculous, emotional, all-or-nothing mentality with respect to guns in America needs to be examined in the cold light of reason.

Americans, we have to talk.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Culture of Killing

Today's murderous rampage in Arizona is a historic national tragedy. With six people dead, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head. Thirteen others are wounded.

In the immediate aftermath, much of the national commentary has appropriately centered on the violent rhetoric and frequent allusions to guns that have, all too often, been a part of political rhetoric in recent months. But among the early headlines is also this item, regarding the shooter, who is clearly deranged:

"Arizona Suspect Likely Facing Death Penalty
for Fatally Shooting Federal Judge"

See the irony here?

Good luck, America, with that whole business about scaling back the violence.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011: Great News for Seniors!

More senior Americans stand a chance of seeing the new year through to the end, thanks to one of the several provisions of The Affordable Care Act (ACA) that take affect today: help with the infamous and deadly "donut hole."

Last year about this time, my husband and I took a little day trip with a group from our local senior center. Most of the people on the bus were retired and dependent on Medicare for their basic health care expenses. They were worried.

Those taking prescription medications necessary to protect their health—and in some cases, their lives—were now facing a three-month period during which they could afford to buy them, if at all, only with extreme financial sacrifice or help from their families. Medications for heart problems, epilepsy, even cancer were suddenly beyond the means of many seniors on the bus and throughout the country. They were faced with the prospect of not being able to take their life-giving prescriptions during one whole quarter of the year—and in some cases two quarters—because they couldn't afford them.

For most seniors, the cruel and inexplicable complexities of George Bush's prescription "help" plan—a deficit-busting plan crafted with the help of the insurance industry to ensure maximum profits for them—was like giving bread and water to starving people: it couldn't help much or for long, but it was better than nothing.

Happily, the new year begins with real help from the new health care plan so many disparagingly call "Obamacare."

Thanks, Mr. President!