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.