Saturday, November 27, 2010

Was It Worth the Hype?

When it started, we thought we could help by providing some common sense and facts. We couldn't.

After it caught on and flooded the internet, we thought our friends would at least pay more than lip service to respect and listen to us. Most did, but many didn't.

Now that the initial shock is over, a lot of people are asking, "That's it? What was that all about?" We tried to tell you. The whole TSA Pat Down Conflagration is not worth getting your panties in a bunch.

This was hardest on my lovely TSA bride. This girl is no wilting flower, and she can take a joke. Heck, if you visit her blog, you see that she can dish the satire as well as anyone.

But after the "scope or grope" jokes wore thin, and the exchanges turned mean-spirited, we both got a little angry. One alleged friend exploded his Facebook feed with every scandalous allegation of TSA wrong-doing he could find - repeatedly suggesting that the new screening procedures amounted to government mandated child molestation. When asked to tone it down and look at the facts behind the stream of half-baked conspiracy, he claimed that HE was the one being demonized! He never said that Kate was part of the problem... just anyone working for TSA who followed their new, evil procedures. How dare we question the facts HE was finding, and try to tell him to accept the skewed TSA propaganda!

The good news is that reactions to the media were not all this extreme. We live in a complex world, and people do tend to be nuanced in their behavior, even if it seems they are behaving as a herd. And I'm happy to concede that this is not a simple issue. In fact, that's my main argument in favor of taking a step back and trying a bit harder to avoid oversimplifying it.

You can't blame any one group or organization for the situation we're in - except maybe for the actual terrorists. Since they recruit from all over, you can't profile on race - and even if you did, how would you profile terrorists? Even if you were to only target Muslims, as some have been demanding, how would you identify them visually? Never mind that racial profiling simply won't make you safe.

Unfortunately, you can't just swear off flying - our so-called free market doesn't have any reasonable choices (of trains, buses, or cars) available to allow that. The trains don't go all the way, the buses are crowded with people you don't want to travel with, and the cars don't drive themselves (at least not yet).

What DO I suggest? Before you fly - before you buy your ticket - visit and look at what the actual regulations are. Look at the list of prohibited items, and DON'T BRING THEM. You don't need knives, shampoo, chainsaws, or gallon jugs of cologne in the cabin of an aircraft, so put those things in your checked bags. Trying to save money on luggage charges? Mail those things to yourself in advance, or break down and buy them at WalMart when you arrive at your destination.

These are not "intrusive government mandates" - these are common sense tips that would be true regardless of security procedure.

And what about the "naughty pictures" and the sexual harassment allegations? Those things are ALREADY against the rules. TSA officers ought to know better, and if you see any of that going on, or if it happens to you, report it.

My challenge for you: look behind the stories that you see. Follow up for yourself on the "Don't Touch My Junk" guy (John Tyner) in San Diego, and answer this question: did anyone involved, whether Tyner or the TSA, *actually* get into trouble? Was anyone convicted of a crime or served a reprimand of any kind? What about all of the child molestation allegations? Did anyone get charged with anything? If no, then is there anything happening that you should be upset about, and if yes, then isn't justice being served?

You're right to be on your toes. Stay vigilant. Watch your children closely, especially in any public place. And when there is any kind of authority figure involved, remember to be respectful, listen to and follow reasonable directions, and most importantly - STAY CALM.

Because when you let the hype send you in looking for a fight, you're more likely to cause one.

Meanwhile, how did the big travel week turn out? There was supposed to be a big "Opt Out Day" protest; my lovely bride was braced for a lot of smug jerks to come through and drop their trousers, trying to get on TV. Instead, the passengers were better prepared, more polite, and easier to deal with than usual. Many came through and thanked the TSA officers for the job they do. Some asked, "Is that the pat down I've been hearing about on TV? What's the big deal?"

For all of the muckraking, shouting, and yellow journalism, the public actually came through. And there is a lesson there, too, I think.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bleep Your Tad Says

I did a "good dad thing" the other day, and let my 8-year-old daughter put eyeliner and lip gloss on my face while I pretended to sleep. She thought it was a hoot, and then I "woke up" and chased her and her brothers around the house planting big, watermelon-scented Dad lips on their cheeks and foreheads.

Therapy is expensive, and this is my way of making sure it will be fun.

After the running around and laughing was over, and I had washed my face, the little girl asked me if I had ever worn makeup before, and I told her about being in theater in high school. I don't know how much got across from 38-year-old mouth to 8-year-old ear, but I told her a little about the science behind makeup; how the bright lights of the stage wash out your features, and how the makeup emphasizes them so the audience can see your face.

It wasn't a long conversation, or a deep one, but it got me thinking about how much I hated wearing makeup on the stage, and how ironic it is that so many people use it in everyday life to "enhance" their image. There is a puzzling dance around the issue of what is real and what is fake when you use something artificial to emphasize only your best features; is it honest to cover up your faults that way, or is it necessary to counteract the effects of too much scrutiny?

Anyway, I was still thinking about the theater later when Flamingo and I sat down to watch some TV. We watch a lot of shows together, but rarely on the actual broadcast television - we prefer to catch up later on DVD or streaming Netflix (how's that for product placement?). This night was different because of Twitter.

I can't explain why, but I use Twitter quite a lot. (If you're reading this on my Blogger site, you can see my feed up to the left.) Even though I tweet and follow lots of friends, political figures, and sci-fi-related actors and actresses, I really can't tell you what value it brings to my life or what I have to offer in return. It has just become Part of My World. (Please, Disney, don't sue me.)

A lot of the stuff I follow on Twitter makes me laugh. Case in point: Wil Wheaton, whom you might remember from Star Trek: Next Generation, Stand By Me, or more recently, Big Bang Theory, where he plays an Evil version of himself. He was on Big Bang Theory that night, and had been twittering all day about it in a fit of shameless self-promotion - which we forgave because we actually wanted to see the show, and because we needed the reminders. We are out of the habit of being tied to the network's schedule.

We enjoyed the show, and later @wilw's meta-tweets (where the real Wil Wheaton actually tweeted here and here what the Evil Wil Wheaton tweeted in the show).

As fate would have it, the show that follow Big Bang Theory happens to come from Twitter, too. I have followed Shit My Dad Says for a while, now, and I knew they were making a TV series out of it, but I didn't see how they could do it justice. For one thing, it's NBC, so instead of the actual name of the Twitter feed, they have to print "$#!# My Dad Says" and call it "Bleep My Dad Says" - all of which is incredibly lame and violates the fundamental beauty of having a title based on profanity in the first place. (If you haven't already read my piece in defense of profanity, I have it right here.)

I won't lie: I hated the show. As much as I enjoy William Shatner (where do you think the nickname "Flamingo" comes from?), and as much as I appreciate Josh Halpern's story as a Geek WIN, the episode we watched embodied everything that is sad, old, and irrelevant about network television. Here they had an opportunity to tap into a built-in audience that has been steadily abandoning their medium, and they've blown it by serving up the kind of warm BLEEP that drove us away in the first place.

What would I have done differently?

Well, for one thing, I would have built the series around the central character of that twenty-something guy forced to move back in with his dad, and made it into a one-camera exploration of his life. Show the guy struggling with his problems and using Twitter as an outlet. Show the family reacting and trying to understand what the buzz is all about. Show the ways this unexpected fame changes his world.

There is a lot of risk in making a half-hour comedy like that, but it has been done well before. This show could have been Arrested Development - instead, it was Silver Spoons. I can't explain Twitter, but I can tell you that it has become popular because we-the-people are intensely interested in ourselves. Shitmydadsays became viral and popular because we are intensely amused by profanity and self-effacement. If you're going to take on the risk of buying a show built on the word "Shit", you should be willing to take on the risk of letting it be good by building on those things that made it strong in the first place.

But I realize it's hard to do that. When you're sitting in the makeup chair, you don't know what your face is going to look like to those in the audience. How much "realism" can you get away with? What should you emphasize, what should you hide? On television, all of that is decided for us, taking the point and the relevance away from us. On the internet, we decide what we want to show and what we want to see - not to mention when we want to see it.

And that is the difference between Bleep and Shit.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Party of NOvember

So, the Republicans made historic gains (as was more or less predicted four and two years ago, respectively) and the pendulum swings back to the so-called "right"... like clockwork. And yet, there is still hope in the world. What makes me say that? A few encouraging signs:

Michigan elected a centrist coalition builder to their governor's mansion.

Crazy did NOT win in Nevada or Delaware. (UPDATE: What the Tea Party Cost by David Frum)

The GOP (mostly) didn't gloat.

There are certainly a lot of things we're all going to differ over, but I'm looking forward to having a Speaker of the House who uses Twitter effectively.

And while the Republicans have vowed to waste everyone's time trying to repeal the Health Care Reform bill, I think the fact that so few of the Tea Party candidates got in (and those who did, like Rand Paul, seem to already be co-opted by the Establishment) that there won't be as much danger of that actually happening. In fact, the impression I have from the news I have not been able to avoid is that the nation didn't get yanked as far to the so-called "right" as we were led to believe it would be. It might just be the case that enough of these new Republican representatives will turn out to be ... drum roll... pragmatic moderates who want to get things done! Maybe even some of these things:

I'd like to see Energy dealt with; take the big Government subsidies away from oil exploration and put it toward developing solar panels that don't use rare-earth elements.

I'd love to see Immigration Reform - only this time, it will let good folks who are already integral members of our community "get legal".

I'd love to see our Defense dollars go toward actual training and equipment for our troops and not toward sweetheart deals that pay too much for not enough support.

And since it wouldn't be right to let this go unsaid: which do you think is money spent more wisely? A failed campaign for Governor of California, or the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. (I can tell you which one will last longer.)

Maybe we'll even start to figure out that money isn't the solution to every problem; work, thought, and practical effort are.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What Really Happened to Calvin & Hobbes

When Bill Watterson retired from writing the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip on December 31, 1995, I was just one of the millions of people who were heartbroken.

In his biography of Watterson, "Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip", Nevin Martell tells us what we already knew: I was not alone in that state. But in reading this book, I discovered something that hadn't ever occurred to me before about Watterson's retirement. This discovery hit me between the eyes as I read about Watterson's life, and saw the interviews recounted by Martell; it wasn't just a discovery about Watterson, or about myself, but about all of us.

What I discovered was what Bill Watterson tried to tell us, both before and after he left us behind and went off to do whatever it is that he's doing now.

Chances are that you found Calvin and Hobbes to be a deeply resonant piece of American art. It wasn't just funny, or "sweet", or merely entertaining - it was important to us. His biographer moans about how difficult it is to "track down" the elusive artist, but Watterson's work gave us everything he wanted to say to us about himself, and we loved it. This comic strip is one of the few things that people say they love that they truly DO feel love for. It's one of those few things that we can all instantly picture or can retell to our friends. I've been an office worker my entire adult life, and of all the comic strips hung on walls or doors, Calvin & Hobbes is the only one I have seen in *every* office (even some where such personalizations were strictly forbidden).

And this is as true in 2010 as it was in 1995... all without much in the way of promotion or marketing.

A lot of people may remember Watterson's position on licensing; for those who don't, I can tell you that Mr. Martell does a great job of conveying it through Watterson's words, and through the words of his publishing syndicate. I know I have always felt a little disappointed that there is no C&H merch to be had anywhere; no key chains, no magnets, no plush toys or plastic figurines. And even before picking up this book, I knew as well as anyone that there were literally millions of dollars to be made from such licensing.

A comic strip "Garfield", by comparison, makes literally Billions of dollars from sales, licensing, endorsements, movies ... the list goes on. Martell talks a bit about that, too, to give us an idea of the level of industry that can be generated around a strip, and to give us an idea of the amount of pressure on Watterson to take this path. All of the "big name" strips have some level of this going on... But when was the last time you bothered reading a Garfield comic strip? Or any of the Brand Name strips, really. Did you laugh? Smile? Remember anything about it after putting it back down?

Watterson tried to tell us how he felt about all of this, and he was nearly universally criticized for it. He told us through interviews, in the strip itself, and in one of the rare speaking appearances he made before going into self-imposed exile. Whether the criticism came from other comics writers snubbed by his words, or from would-be marketers wishing he'd let Calvin hawk cereal or allow Hobbes's face on a line of kid's underwear, or even from casual fans like myself who thought they'd look witty and cool with Calvin's class photo pictures on a t-shirt - no one really understood that Watterson had a very clear idea of the gift he wanted to give to us. More importantly (and more to the point of posting this blog): no one understood what he wanted in return.

Bill Watterson only wanted to write his comic strip, and be successful enough at it to support his family.

But, you will argue, why couldn't he do that AND give permission so we could have all the stuff, too? The answer to this is the epiphany I had reading this book. I have written before about how the internet is changing our economy, and have spoken privately to my friends about the ways in which I feel our hyper-marketing "free" market system destroys the very things we find to be of value.

Some of you have heard me talk anecdotally about how hard it is for us to find products that we can all eat (due to allergies) or fruit juices that have actual fruit in them. There are multiple movies and books available to describe the ways the food industry corrupts the products we try to buy in the name of efficiency and "broad appeal". And we all know how often (and awfully) it happens in the entertainment business - do I need to queue up some Disney sequels or the Star Wars Christmas Special?

It was Watterson's personal and professional integrity and his complete focus on and control over his strip that made it what it was. And he was right that industrializing it would have destroyed it.

Our obsessions with celebrity are not news. The desire of industry to exploit that obsession is not news. Even the story of someone trying to avoid the corrosive influence of fame and money is not news. Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth in 1994 for the same reasons that Bill Watterson cited when he walked away from his world renowned comic strip, and many of us shrugged and said, he's just another spoiled rock star. So where's the "so what" in this? What's the big lesson?

The lesson is that it can be done. Watterson did exactly what he wanted to do with his life: he gave us 10 years of top-notch art, in daily 3-panel and weekly 9-panel installments. He changed us; he affected us; and, as friends often do, he moved on to do something else.

Bill Watterson achieved the real American dream. He did it with class and grace, said thank you, and then walked away. He never exploited us, nor has he allowed anyone else to do so. And when the world sat at his feet begging him to take millions of dollars more to keep going - he knew that doing so would be a lie and a cheat. It wasn't what he wanted to do, and I have no doubt that if I sat at my desk sticking pens into my Hobbes(tm) pencil sharpener, I would not be any happier than I am when I find a copy of "Something Under the Bed Is Drooling" tucked under my kid's pillow.

There are two ways to lose your dream. One is to try and fail; the other is to succeed so wildly that you destroy everything you wanted in the process. I'm glad that Bill Watterson got his dream; and I'm grateful for the 3,160 dreams that we got from him.

We need to learn to be happy with enough.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Decent Man I Happened to Disagree With

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend described George W. Bush to me as "a decent man you just happen to disagree with politically."

I would tend to describe just about anyone in our elected government that way - though their "decency" may be a fragile thing at times. But her dismissal of the very real problems that I had (and still have) with the Bush Administration bothered me, and I wanted to find a way to address them without being snarky or simply argumentative. Contrary to the picture some of my friends like to paint of me, I never "hated" George W. Bush. I think it's important to remind people of that, but it's hard to separate my strong disagreement with the things he did from the man himself.

Today, that same friend posted this video, which gave me something direct to address:

Since Mr. Bush laid out the points that he seems to think are most important, and capture the best snapshot of his terms in office, I'd like to address them - Point by point:

Quitting drinking at age 40 - this is, of course, an admirable thing to do. It shows a strength of character, and he clearly relied on his strong relationship with his wife and his faith in Jesus to make this change and make it stick. From where I sit, I can see that he essentially replaced the crutch of alcohol with the crutch of his relgion.

That's fine in and of itself - I'm a big proponent of letting damaged people use the tools they need to use to overcome their shortcomings. I also disagree with those who say that a President should not wear his faith on his sleeve the way Mr. Bush often did; if it is truly a part of you, your faith should not be something you hide or avoid mentioning. My only "disagreement" with Mr. Bush's religion is that it is not right for me, and there are other Points where it affected his Decisions in ways that it should not have done.

Running for President - When Mr. Bush ran for President, I was a tired, shift-working burnout serving in the USAF in England. As a distant ex-pat grappling with how I felt about Libertarianism, and wearied by years of anti-Clinton rhetoric, I wasn't ready to vote for the Republican party's theory of "reducing government", but I figured that it would either be a) successful, and therefore worthy of consideration, or b) a failure which might prod the country in a more Centrist direction.

Later, I read about Karl Rove's underhanded tactics (told from John McCain's POV in David Foster Wallace's "Up, Simba" essay), and the cutthroat dishonesty that Mr. Bush engaged in to get the GOP nomination; it was an illuminating discovery, but by then, of course, the damage was done. None of it was, technically, "illegal", but it was dodgy, and I recognized enough of the same in 2004 to be doubly angry at our so-called "two party" system.

But you can't deny that the American populace finds the idea of an affable "good ol' boy" to be appealing, and W. was thoroughly qualified to play that part.

Selecting senior staff - I allowed myself to be optimistic in 2001 when Gen. Colin Powell was added to the Bush team. Never mind that he was one voice among a dozen others that included already-discredited former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (an essay for another day, I'm afraid). Never mind that Karl Rove was already known as "Bush's Brain" and that Grover Norquist - the man who said "My goal is to cut government...down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub. " - was planning the destruction of the American government from within.

After Gen. Powell's UN speech and Mr. Cheney's dishonest tactics in coralling U.S. Congressional votes, it became clear which "half" of the staff was in charge of these important Decision Points.

Education reform - "No Child Left Behind" is often touted as the Bush Administration's one success. Holding teachers accountable for their students' performance and breaking the Unions' death grip on any reform effort are both admirable goals, in my opinion. But as a single "success" it is hardly compelling.

Over the years, I have asked everyone I find who liked and supported Mr. Bush to tell me what else he accomplished. So far, no one has come up with an answer.

Stem Cell research - This is not a debate I enjoy. Finding a legal precedent for the beginning of human life is emotionally wrenching, and the impact of the decision on other lives is horrifying, no matter which way it falls. The only thing in this debate - like the debate over the legality of abortion - which seems certain is that the law must either trust individual doctors and women to make the right decision in each case, or must arbitrarily decide in advance what that "right decision" is, and find a way to intrusively enforce it.

It's a lose-lose situation.

9/11 - There was a moment after the attacks when all Americans were on the same page, and felt the same way. For me, that ended on 9/15/2001, when Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced (without any evidence) that he intended to get revenge on Saddam Hussein for the attacks. I can't find a reference to that speech, but CBS dug up notes that were more revealing in 2002.

The following points Mr. Bush mentioned in his video all stem from bad decisions made at the urging of his most trusted advisors. Going into combat was debatably the correct move in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. The lasting debacle that is Homeland Security is a testament to the kind of "big government" that Mr. Bush was elected to bring down, and while in the context of "winning" (an idea that was never defined or given a tangible goal) in Iraq the Troop Surge was the right decision, it would not have been necessary if not for the earlier mistake of invading Iraq in the first place.

Re-election - 2004 was a frustrating time for me. Everything I had seen the Bush Administration do to that point told me that the next four years would be equally, if not more awful. And yet, when the Democrats handed us the turd sandwich that was John Kerry, and the American people failed to demand a third option that wasn't on the menu, I began grasping for hope. In the debates, Kerry dismantled Bush point by point, while perversely making him look like the better candidate; Bush spoke of love for each other and our fellow man, and actually gave me a glimmer of hope that his second term would be marked by humility and compassion.

It wasn't.

Tax cut plan - When we got our check - which my lovely bride still refers to as our "Dirty Bush money" - we had to ask: where does this money come from? Did it come out of the welfare checks that would have gone to the "welfare queens" that conservatives hate so? Nope; they're still ahead of us in line at the grocery store buying foods we can't afford. Did it come from subsidies that we shouldn't be paying for "oil exploration" or for small farmers - like ConAgra?

Apparently it came from all of those places where you don't see spending happening; roads, bridges, schools, state and local services, and infrastructure.

At least we got a big screen TV out of the deal, right?

Global AIDS initiative - This really does seem to be a success; at least the 1.7 million Africans benefiting from it might think so. What I find interesting is that no one seems to think of it when they talk about Mr. Bush's successes. Obviously, his opponents wouldn't want to admit that it's a Good Thing(tm)... but it's worth wondering why his supporters wouldn't tout it more loudly.

Unless it simply goes against everything they believe in; tax dollars going to save the lives of brown people in foreign lands without any discernable profit to the U.S.

Mr. Bush: I applaud you for this success.

Then there are the areas where Mr. Bush regrets his failings:

Social Security - I've written and spoken many times about how I agreed with Mr. Bush's approach to this, and how it bears a more rational look from all sides.

Immigration - This, too, is often overlooked as part of the Bush Administration's plans. A real Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would welcome those who want to become a legitimate part of our Dream, and find ways to secure our border against criminals, thugs, and smugglers is still needed. I still hope that we'll be able to look past our racist and nationalistic instincts, and past our petty desire for some kind of "justice" against those who have committed a relatively minor crime, and come up with a solution.

Katrina - This was a difficult issue for everyone. On the one hand, the U.S. President doesn't control the weather, and obviously can't be expected to anticipate every emergency that crops up. Personally, I ignored a lot of the criticism of the immediate response from the White House because so much of it seemed to come from political animosity and misdirected fear; at the same time, there were a lot of bad things that happened or didn't happen because the government was unable to perform its mission.

I saw Katrina as a symptom of the success of Grover Norquist's goal to reduce the government to something that could be drowned in a bathtub. New Orleans showed us that a bathtub is the least of our worries. If we don't invest in public infrastructure, and ensure that the organizations that oversee its maintenance are kept up to date and efficiently managed, we could all end up in a similar situation. There is no way to know in advance whether it will be a hurricane, an earthquake, wildfires, or some other disaster. Global Climate Change scientists have been warning for decades that storms and weather patterns will become more severe AND more unpredictable. Without good government, we will be unprotected.

Katrina did not show me that the Bush Administration was "bad"; it showed me that good government is important.

"...Putting ideology aside" during 2008 economic crisis - This is a point where I agree with Mr. Bush. I agree with him wholeheartedly that the ideology he espoused did not have the answers needed to protect us from the economic crisis. He may not be willing to admit it - his GOP successors certainly don't - but the ideology of "unregulated financial products" that he championed throughout his presidency caused the crisis, just as clearly as uncontrolled speculation caused the 1929 crash.

Thanks to Annie for posting Mr. Bush's video. I intend to read his book, and if moved to do so, may write about it. But I am grateful that Mr. Bush was able to lay out the points that are important to him. It gave me what I have long needed to help define his presidency, and to rationally describe my reaction to it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Don't Like the Democrats Either

"Then why," you may ask, "do you seem to always pick on the Republicans?"

That's a valid question, and I think the reason is simple and obvious. If you want to skip down to the bottom and see what it is without bothering with all of my blathering on and self-justification, go ahead. But, if you really want to know why, I will tell you what I know.

I know that the Democratic party is, as a rule, a loosely related raggle-taggle group of frustrated progressives, corporate glad-handers, smarmy con artists, deluded ex-hippies, and (occasionally) well-meaning people who are trying to fix problems using the government as a tool to do so. The most visible and successful of them tend to become vaguely (but not provably) corrupt and disconnected from whatever movement launched their career in the first place. It is this, and the smug condescension that they exude when they contrast themselves with challengers, that annoys me, and that is the most often cited criticism of Democrats that I hear from their opponents.

In fact, the one thing I most often hear as criticism of any given Democrat is that they "are smug elitists who think they are better and smarter than anyone else." The other favorite old trope to drag out is that the "love to spend money", or to put it into modern mis-speech, "they're socialists". (They're not, for the most part... but that's not to say that there isn't a separate and distinct socialist movement out there.)

When I think about individual Democrats - like John Kerry, Howard Dean, the Clintons - I see those traits that I don't like: unprincipled, pandering, unreliable, and generally... well, "political", in the sense that they are more interested in manipulating the vote count than in making sensible policy (a whole essay in itself, and a very boring one). In fact, until Barack Obama came along and began saying the things about our government that I have been thinking for years and years, there wasn't a single visible Democrat that I could point to and identify with.

Now, I have spoken before about my background as a fundamentalist conservative kid, growing up in the Reagan era, and how I outgrew a lot of the ideas that many people today are embracing and plastering on Tea Party posters at astro-turfed rallies. There were a lot of stupid ideas out there 20+ years ago, and as I grew older and became a voter, I realized that I didn't want to simply flip-flop out of a frying pan of stupid ideas and into a sterno can full of other stupid ideas. What I began looking for was Something Better, and it's really hard to figure out what that is, especially when the only two parties with any realistic shot at winning elections are furiously spinning every fact, report, or incident to their favor.

So why do I seem to pick on the Republicans? I suppose you could call it disappointment. The Democrats are easy to paint as awful people - many of them ARE awful people - and it should be easy to "be better" than any given Democrat candidate. What I see from the Republican party (and many of their supposedly "independent" supporters) is not "better" by any stretch.

Where it is so easy to point out the "mote in the eye" of the Democrats, the GOP has had a seriously difficult time removing the "log" in their own. They have labored to appeal to the worst in us to achieve their goals, taking the cruelest, stupidest, most self-destructive positions on every issue they can find, and they've almost made it a part of their brand to take positions that go against their own stated principles.

My own pet issues of energy independence from oil and reducing defense spending through reform of our horribly broken contract/acquisition system would seem to be easy conservative Wins. Conservative voices could completely disarm their Democrat opponents by taking up against the behemoth Military Industrial Complex, as Republican President Eisenhower cautioned; instead they have focused on attacking "entitlement" spending (while at the same time defending Medicare from any cuts) and defending nation building as if it were a national sport. And conservatism is all about "sustainability", and yet it is rare to find a Republican willing to suggest that the world's supply of oil is something we are far too addicted to (or to recognize that the billions of dollars in oil subsidies we pay should be rethought).

But rather than face any real issues, or take on any real governing tasks, the GOP strategy has been to throw mud - not just at Democrats, but at anyone who isn't "Republican enough". It wouldn't be so easy to pick on them all the time if there weren't always another over-hyped, pathos-laden slander scandal blowing up somewhere. Stuff that wouldn't have been news if reputable reporting were a standard any more is spewed out on one side, and carefully picked through by the other while the rest of us scratch our heads and wonder "why does it feel like the Government doesn't get anything getting done?"

And that's the beauty of the GOP strategy; they want to prove the point that Government is "bad" - ineffective, inefficient, and onerous. All they have to do is constantly. Slow. It. Down. And they win.

That's also what makes me angry. Because as crappy and flaccid as Democrat-led government seems to be, it is better than the alternative that the GOP offers. I don't like anarchy, and I outgrew the stark, nihilistic objectivism of Libertarianism not too long after I outgrew the sour, acidic version of Christianity that ties itself to the conservative agenda. The party that claims the patriotism title ought not to be seeking to destroy the nation; the party that claims to fight for fiscal responsibility ought not slave itself to the broken defense system or whore itself to oil and coal industries. The party that claims to be on God's side in the trumped up Culture Wars ought not to be selling out the two things that Jesus taught (love thy neighbor and thy God) for political clout.

Most vexing to me is that people I know - my friends and family; people I love - buy into all of this, and come to the conclusion that because I disagree with them, or because I criticize their mistaken beliefs that I somehow "hate" them. The GOP has loaded their rhetoric with so much fear, loathing, bile, and ignorance that it has tainted everyone with this general feeling of weary suspicion. And so it is usually their crap that I see floating through my Facebook feed or RSS reader that I feel I need to address. I can't let it go and imply that I approve or agree with it; and either no one wants to talk about it (which fosters more suspicion) or they jump to a heated defense.

So that's why: the Democrats may be annoying and uninspired, but they don't claim to be much more than that in the first place. The Republicans claim to be a sensible alternative, but behave like spoiled, crazy children and poison the whole environment - literally and figuratively. I want something better, and they keep digging up the worst.

Now, will you please stop calling me a "liberal" and wasting my time by crying about how offended you are that I criticized your stupid, bigoted Tea Party opinions, and start finding some third party alternatives with actual sense?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Our Duty to Each Other

Major Paul Carron has died in Afghanistan.

I did not know him, but his letter to the editor of the Washington Times (published March, 2006) spoke of the bravery and courage of the young men and women who serve in our military, and it has made him something of a celebrity among veterans. It was written in response to criticisms of our troops, characterizing them as young people without the skills or talent to do anything else; his defense of the sacrifices that these people make is an eloquent statement of a Great Truth about our military.

The context which prompted him to write that letter was a disconnect between what he saw on the battlefield and what people back in the States see in our schools and on our streets. He writes of that Great Truth of our military, which is that our all-volunteer force is made up of people who have offered up their lives in order to do whatever the rest of us have asked them to do - through our duly elected government, of course - forfeiting much of their claim to the everyday conveniences that we take for granted.

I would go farther and say that our military members give up far more than that - they give up more than their own lives. They give up "normal" family life, or any hope of great financial reward, and they submit themselves and their loved ones to exactly the kind of top-down social bureaucracy that many of them believe they are fighting against. The Great Truth that Major Carron wrote about is that the act of joining and serving our military is a transformative act; everyone who decides to serve, no matter what their skills or opportunities were on the outside, must give up the same things and accept the same responsibility to the country, and that means that we all owe them a measure of respect regardless of what they were before they made that choice.

There is something else that we owe them, as well. While not everyone is able to make that same sacrifice, everyone one of us has a duty to ensure that our military is not asked to do things that betray our values. If we are going to separate them from their families and send them into places where the people they are trying to help want to kill them, we need to be absolutely certain that we understand what their mission is, and that our representatives in government are making the decision to use our forces to accomplish that mission only after everything else has been tried.

I don't believe we have done that.

This is not about whether war is right or wrong; this is about whether we have done everything we can do to honor the sacrifices of our veterans. This is about whether you, as a voter, have bothered to find out whether the bills our Congress passes pay for armor or to treat those injured in our adventures. This is about whether you bother to seek out the news of the wars we are in, or simply switch over to a "reality" show and complain the next day about the lack of coverage.

This is about whether you are fulfilling YOUR duty to our servicemembers. That may mean disagreeing with some of them; many of them gain a lot of wisdom in their service, but none of them are perfect. But what makes them heroic and honorable is that they fulfill their commitments. You have commitments, too, and one of them is to stay informed and use your voice to keep this country on track.

I have seen a lot of polls and a lot of articles lately, decrying America's "direction". I have seen a lot of anger directed at our elected officials. Some of them deserve it, others are doing the best they can. But they are all a reflection of us. When I look at how messed up Congress is, and how ignorant many of our representatives are, I am looking into a mirror; and so are you.

Major Carron has died in Afghanistan. He was doing what he thought was right, and carrying out our orders. What orders did you give him? And what will you decide to do next?

And who will your decision honor?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Restore Honor

There is a relatively new trend in the U.S. to call for a "return to traditional values." I say "relatively" new because we've only been hearing it since the early 1600s, and on a geologic scale, that's pretty recent. Since the early colonies in Massachusetts and Plymouth were started by Protestant outcasts seeking a place where they could bring about a society built on values that they thought were lost on a decadent contemporary society Americans have been on a quest for that elusive Tradition of... something.

Considering that Traditional has different meanings for different people, it is worth asking those who demand a return to Tradition what, exactly, they think they are asking for. Some are vague, longing for a nostalgic period from their childhood that didn't really exist; others are adamant and focused on a particular set of rules or behaviors... which they hesitate to admit to because they know admitting to those rules won't go over well with those who will have to live with them.

No two individuals you ask will be able to agree on what Traditional Values are. Try me on that one - find two people who you think are in agreement, and they will find something to fight over. But there are two fairly consistent "trump cards" that those who want to stump for Tradition will play: The U.S. Constitution, and The Bible.

I find this to be frustrating, because in almost every case, those who insist on "returning" to the system of values and behavior enshrined in those documents have read neither. Thus, the links.

Sure, they've skimmed - we all have. Human animals are social creatures with a long history of oral communication, and we have traditionally ruled ourselves through rumor and word of mouth. How many times since toddling onto your first playground have you heard or used the "you can't make me, it's a free country" defense? I've had the First Amendment on the tip of my tongue as a response to anyone told me to shut up since First Grade (along with the Seventh Commandment).

The problem with ruling by Oral Tradition is that a lot of error creeps in. We are ephemeral beings, only here on Earth, if we are very careful, and very lucky, for about 100 years. (And only being here mentally for less than half of that time.) Some clever blokes in Sumeria about 4,000 BCE figured out how to etch their thoughts into lumps of the hardy clay found in local marshes (a practice which became known as "bogging"), and noticed that it was a good way to pass down exactly what they said so that later generations wouldn't screw up their pithy quotes. So, while writing is also relatively new in the geological sense, I think it's safe to call it a "Traditional Value".

The Bible is a difficult document to live by, at best. Historically, it is (if you believe what people say) as old as writing itself. In its way, it is rather like Wikipedia; a collaborative effort of hundreds of writers and editors which is sometimes really useful, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It's hard to tell which Traditional Values in it are useful, but most Traditionalists seem bent on emphasizing those Ten Commandments; which is odd considering how few of them make good, enforceable laws. Even if you accept the "this is a Christian nation" tradition, how does that make sense? If we are supposed to be Christians, shouldn't we include something that Christ actually said? How about the Beatitudes?

But The Bible is a controversial thing to base American traditions upon. Nevermind the fact that for the approximately 6,000 years of its traditionally accepted existence, no two groups have ever agreed on what it means or how to apply its tenets. And never mind that the polls showing the majority of Americans are Christians count people who would not be considered "real Christians" at all, if proving a political point weren't on the line.

That is why the Founding Fathers though it better to trade that tradition of strife and disagreement and non-inclusion for a simpler, modern document focused on secular laws. Better to create some basic boundaries between religion and government, and create a safe "arena" within which we can quibble and fight. And we can call those rules and boundaries: The Constitution.

Of course, for its youth, the Constitution is just as difficult for people to understand. It's full of words, clauses, and concepts that... well, the confusing part is that it's full of words, clauses, and concepts. Fortunately, it includes instructions on how to pick people to read it and interpret it FOR us! Unfortunately, that means that we still rule ourselves by rumor, and that people who want to return to a strict reading of it usually haven't.

Don't take my word for it. Traditionalists are just as lost and confused about what the Document means as the rest of us. That's why there are Traditionalists who protest the U.S. Census, even though the 4th paragraph of Article 2 Section 1 clearly spells out how and when it should work. There are Traditionalists who rail against the "immoral" practice of taxation - though Article 1 Sect. 2, Sect. 8, Sect. 9, and Amendment 16 all clearly spell out how and when THAT should work. Traditionally, these things are managed by Congress - the direct representatives of the population.

Traditionally, the Congress hasn't been very good at representing the general populace. It's hard to do, what with all of the ignorant masses yelling out their ideas and throwing things at you when you're trying to figure out the best way to divide your time between getting into bed with lobbyists AND getting into bed with anyone impressed by your awesome elected power. Most people - traditionalists and non-traditionalists alike - rightly view the Congress as a congregation of whores, only out to satisfy the next John carrying a fat roll of money. The problem with this view is not that it is inaccurate, but that We the People are the "John" and we keep coming back for more. (Talk about maintaining a market!)

The solution to corruption has always been the same: remove money from the equation. Even if you think I'm overstating the level of corruption, it takes absurd amounts of the stuff to run an election these days. Recent Presidential campaigns have run into the billions - with a B - and some high profile Senate races run into the double-digit millions. There's really no getting around how ridiculous this is.

We're doing it now, too; complaining about government spending while wasting obscene amounts of money to watch our pet whores trash each other in TV attack ads. Remember the big flap over President Bush not signing off on $35 million dollars funding health insurance for poor children? The Minnesota Senate race cited above would have almost paid for that bill, and chances are, we STILL would have been treated to the spectacle of the race, courtesy of the media whores desperate to cash in on Al Franken's controversial celebrity.

I know it doesn't sound "traditional", but how about we try something new? We've already seen how easy it can be to get a message out to people using free platforms. I could shoot a campaign video with my $100 iPod, and with a bit of savvy social networking, get it to go viral. I could use a Public library computer to photoshop a compelling campaign poster, sell it as a bumper sticker, and fund my registration fees. Why don't I? Because I like my current job, and am forbidden to run.

Of course, there's nothing stopping any of you from trying this. There's a lot of drivel about "grass roots" campaigns out there, but the truth is, no one has had the cojones to abandon their two-party system, turn their backs on their pimps, and vote for the "unknown". Never mind that it's easier than ever to get to know the "unknown" - I'd link you to examples, but for the Hatch Act; you have Google. Never mind that it's easy to find out how "write in" candidates work in your precinct; what's stopping you from picking someone you think would represent you well and campaigning FOR them? That's traditional, at least.

George Washington didn't even run for President; he was elected, and then agreed to take the job. He is also the only President who never chose a party, explaining on many occasions that he thought partisan politics would ruin the Republic. It seems we have ample proof that he was right about that.

So, even though the practice seems decidedly "non-traditional", I would argue that starting a new Tradition is the most traditionally American activity of them all. What's to stop us Restoring our Honor by demanding that money - corporate or otherwise - be removed from our electoral system? Only the 330 million of you, my friends, and your willingness to wait for the Congress to reform itself for you, out of a sense of honor that none of you believe exists.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

When Does Magic Die?

"Oh, no... my tooth is still here!"

My heart fell. My littlest pulled her tooth out Saturday morning, while I was still lying in bed (recovering from Friday night), and here it was, time to tuck her in on Sunday night... and the Tooth Fairy had failed her.

She has been on something of a tooth-pulling spree lately. This is her third lost tooth in two weeks! I told her the Tooth Fairy probably hadn't expected her to lose another so quickly, and she seemed to accept that. "I'll just leave it for tonight," she said. "But I think I figured out who really brings the money."

My lovely bride and I are not religious people, and we try to be practical about child rearing; we don't make up a lot of pretty lies about life. My children know - as much as the innocent can know - what death is, and in general terms they know how babies are made. They know to call a vagina a "vagina" and a penis a "penis" - not a "boom boom" or a "wee-wee" or a "private area," so in an emergency the doctor doesn't have to guess where the injury is. They know that there are Bad People out in the world, and that sometimes the Good People aren't at their best either.

But we've tried to preserve some of the magic in our practical lives through some of the more obvious, persistent myths; the Tooth Fairy, Santa on Christmas Eve, and the Easter Bunny. There is a sweetness in the joy they feel when they get that tangible proof that something Other loves them, and even the bittersweet moment when they realize that it's a lie can be a practical learning moment, too. But that is a moment worth delaying.

I asked her who really brings the money with a quizzical expression, hoping I looked a bit like David Tennant's Dr. Who, and failing miserably, I'm sure.

"Your mom and dad," she said.

"You mean, MY mom and dad?" I asked, hamming it up, hoping to talk my way out of this somehow. "But they're all the way out in Phoenix!"

"No," she explained in her exasperated way. "The mom and dad of the kid who lost the tooth." She's probably not going to be a good second grade teacher with her short temper and her eye-rolling. "That means YOU, Dad."

"Well, I don't know anything about THAT," I said, unconvincingly. "You just put that tooth under your pillow, and see what happens!" I asked to see it, and she proudly raised the pillow so I could. Hard to miss, tiny as it was; it was long, sharp, and still a little bloody, not unlike life itself.

I tucked her in, and kissed her, and went about my business. I had to wait for her to fall asleep, after all. I tucked in the boys - the elder who had seen through our Tooth Fairy ruse years ago, and the younger who knew damn well who was bringing the loot, and was still mad at us for being so stingy, but pretended to believe so the funds would keep flowing.

The teenager and I went in and fired up the Wii so we could enjoy the adventures of the aforementioned Doctor, and I almost forgot about the tooth again. I only thought of it because of magic.

The particular episode we watched involved the Doctor and his companion visiting William Shakespeare in 1599, where they saved the universe by supplying the Bard of Avon with the word "Expelliarmus" at an opportune moment. The Harry Potter reference had us in stitches.

As I kissed the teen goodnight, she said something about how sad she had been on her 11th birthday, NOT finding out that she was a witch, and going to Hogwarts. She's still a dreamer, though, and I am willing to bet she is watching out for a blue Police box to appear on a street corner to whisk her away on an adventure... someday. Those dreams, no matter how silly or obviously false, those are part of us. They keep us going, for some reason.

I have my own dreams, my own private hopes, and if I told you what some of them were, you would think me a fool. You wouldn't believe that I could hold onto some of the things I dream about, as old as I am and as much as I have seen of the world. But I assure you, I do; and even though there is no reason to expect that they will, some of my dreams keep coming true.

I crept by one of my most precious dreams as she slumbered on my bed (waiting for her 0200 alarm). I fetched one of the few remaining gold dollars I have hidden in my sock drawer for emergencies like this one - this one had Andrew Jackson's face on it. I crept up the stairs, in the dark, avoiding the creakier spots in the floor. And even though it's obviously false, and rather silly, I was the Tooth Fairy, and Old Hickory was the golden treasure.

When does the magic die? Hopefully not tonight.

Hopefully, never.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Dismal Science

This is Part IV of a series of posts looking at  The Revolution: A Manifesto, by Dr. Ron Paul.

I promised I would write about Ron Paul's economics approach, but I'm having a hard time finding the angle I'm looking for. It seems we don't have the vocabulary yet to express where I think we are in the evolution of economics. I've written before about this new kind of "free market" that we seem to be developing:

Instead of manufacturing, sales and service are our bread and butter. Marketing, transportation, and information; these are what the U.S. really thrives on, now. Look at our most successful companies, like Google. They "manufacture" a product which they give away for free, and yet their value has continued to rise...

Anyone with a ~$500 set-up can record, polish, and release an album of songs, and can set up a shop online to sell (or give away) their recordings... [several artists] have offered free downloads of their music, and toured "on demand", making money from shows that were sold out before they were booked, and from selling CDs and DVDs online - again, directly to their niche market.

In a way, we have become more purely Capitalist... and at the same time, with the means of production (almost) freely available to everyone, we have also become more purely Communist (without the purges and bread lines). So what gives? What do we call ourselves in an age where you make a profit from giving your stuff away?

-"It's Not Capitalism Any More - But What IS It?", November 22, 2009

Even money isn't really the "coin of the realm" any more. What is money, after all, but a digital record on a computer of a value that has been mutually agreed upon? What was our last decade of supposed "wealth creation" but a gigantic inflation of that value, which failed when enough of us stopped trusting that it was real?

The coin of the realm - the thing that drives our lives and determines our worth to each other - is information. Not just any information, but information that can be trusted. If you think about it, trust is the only thing that has any real value any more; if you don't believe you will get a return on your investment or be rewarded with a safe and comfortable retirement, you won't invest and you won't remain loyal to one company. If you don't believe that your government will protect you and the world in which you make your livelihood, you won't support it.

I don't claim to be very knowledgeable about economics. I understand a lot of the same "basic common sense" things that most of you understand: supply & demand, and interest, and return on investment. But I also understand that there are a lot of concepts that seem to work counter-intuitively. Insurance seems like a bad idea, gambling on whether the money I give to the company will ever benefit me; yet it's the only investment we made that survived the collapse last year. It's tempting to believe Dr. Paul's claim that getting rid of the intrusive and ineffective government will improve our lives, and yet without the government, all of our "free and unfettered" businesses would have dissolved along with their imaginary wealth, taking the rest of us with them.

But again, I don't think we have the vocabulary to describe what is really happening to our world. We talk about Government and Markets, Corporations and Individuals, "special interests" and "activist groups" as if they are not all the same thing: groups of people trying to get by, get along, or get one over. We all fit into those same groups in some fashion, and no matter how innocent or virtuous we try to pretend we are, we all try to balance our own welfare and that of our fellow humans according to whatever beliefs we identify with most strongly. (Some of us even include non-humans in that balance.)

Dr. Paul spends a lot of time trying to identify with a group of people we Americans call our "Founding Fathers." In passages too numerous and generic to quote here, he calls upon all of us to trust in their mutual vision for this country. He calls on us to protect our freedom and liberty, as those founders would have done. Freedom from what to do what, he would leave up to you to figure out, which plays into the American conceit that as long as you leave me alone, whatever you do is your choice. But these Founding Fathers didn't have a unified approach to things, either.

As Sarah Vowell discusses in her exploration of the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Wordy Shipmates, there were a lot of contradictions involved in the founding of our country. The Puritans were a people who believed strongly in personal integrity, industry (in the original sense), and morality - but also in self-sacrifice and the common good. Check out this passage describing a government built on their ideals:

"The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."

That passage is an enigmatic encapsulation of what America is all about. It sums up exactly what I was trying to describe in my earlier post on government, and depending on how you read him, that social compact is either the summation or antithesis of Dr. Paul's entire life of public service. Any American running for public office builds on that idea, whether advancing it or demonizing it. It unifies and divides us, all in one sentence, and that self-contradiction is what makes our country so beautiful and frustrating all at once.

It was written by John Adams in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Reading Dr. Paul's book, I can appreciate his criticism of our government. We've drifted away from John Adams's ideal, whether from the idea of "voluntary association" or from the idea of "common good" - our systems and institutions have been corrupted by the worst impulses of the free market. But I don't trust his solution: to remove Government from the equation.

When you have a government that looks like the one Adams described, it is the extension of the will of the people it governs to operate in everyone's best interests. The reason we don't have that is because of apathy and neglect from the voting public; the participants who ought to be controlling the government. Dr. Paul should be calling for more involvement IN government, not freedom FROM government.

That is where the Founding Fathers agreed. They wanted to claim more direct control over their own lives and affairs, not throw away control altogether. Our government is supposed to be an extension of our own self-control; it is supposed to reflect our will and our desire for integrity, industry, and personal responsibility. I suspect that the reason we are all so unhappy with it is that it is doing just that.

As for economic theories, I think the new coin of the realm - information and trust - will move us in the direction we need to go. In that sense, Dr. Paul is right; no government body can dictate that trust or earn it through corruption or political wrangling. But that will mean we need figure out better ways to determine who and what to trust. Perhaps that will mean less Government, but it will definitely mean smarter government - and a voluntary involvement in the common good.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fully-clothed Gentlemen

I have maintained for 17 years (give or take) that Steven Page is the finest male pop vocalist around, so when I learned that he was leaving Barenaked Ladies, I felt some concern for what might happen to the band. 

Despite their racy name, the five fully clothed Canadian goofs had a unique, wholesome, and geeky charm that grabbed me from my first listen to Gordon in 1992. They could be dangerous, but it was okay because it was absurd. And even though absurd wasn't cool yet, it served them well. Best of all, while the music was obviously all about them, it was also about me.

I got into the classroom but my knowledge was gone
I guess I should have studied 'stead of watchin' "Wrath of Khan"
-Grade 9
Unlike most pop acts, you could tell these guys thought their popularity was a big mistake. It had to be a joke, right? Five overweight nerds with a joke name? But they weren't a joke or a mistake; they were earnest musicians who had a mile-wide silly streak - who else could pull off a Star Trek reference on their first album?

And when they began to realize that it was real, and no joke, they weren't afraid to transition into real song-writing, sometimes leaving me breathless when I realized that there was no ready joke buried in the raw emotion of certain songs. And like my own transition from high school to adulthood, I found it easy to follow them wherever they went - even though there were some dark moments hiding under the bed.
And you said...
What'd you think that I was gonna do,
Try to make you love me as much as I love you?
How could you be so low?
You arrogant man,
What do you think that I am?
My heart will be fine
Just stop wasting my time
-Break Your Heart
This dark-edged but upbeat chemistry carried them through the brilliant Stunt andMaroon, and left them sounding baffled, happy, and a little bit tired on their back-to-back independent releases,Barenaked Ladies Are Me and Barenaked Ladies Are Men (the "BLAM" albums). I didn't know anything then, but I suspected they were feeling the strain of prolonged existence - a theme that Steve's songs had hinted at since the beginning.
A party at a friend's
Toronto's coolest scene
I thought I'd bring a tape
To show them where I'd been
And listen for a while
The lyrics made them smile
They said that it was fine
Although it's not the style
I said it wasn't me
Running Out Of Ink
What made this such a great band went beyond the song-writing - which could be a varied mixture of tender, witty, acerbic, sentimental, or naughty. There was a mixed-up collaborative feel to the songs that extended into their famous live improv work, and found its way back into the studio somehow. Whatever else you could say about them, The Ladies were there for a good time, and that's what they were good at providing. Everyone seemed to be having fun.
"A is for attitude I can't help but wield
A is for arrogance; emotional shield
A is for acting, A is for abhorrently
A is for asshole, which is what I am, how rude of me.
I owe you an apology I'm sorry"
If you know them, you don't need me to tell you this, but that chemistry came from combining 5 distinctly different and intensely creative personalities into one unit. We're not talking about Lennon/McCartney level collaboration, but you could tell each member did their own thing, brought it into the studio, and took turns going "Yeah, I like that! Want me to do THIS?"
I thought that Alcohol was just for those with
nothing else to do
I thought that drinking just to get drunk
was a waste of precious booze
But now I know that there's a time
and there's a place where I can choose
To walk the fine line between
self-control and self-abuse
It's probably no secret why Steve left the band. After a drug bust in 2008, his lifestyle appeared to be veering into the self-indulgent and self-destructive. I don't know the details - whether he wanted to leave, or the rest of the band wanted him to leave; whether he needed to get away to get better, or what - but it's not hard to see the effects that years of continued adulation, success, and hard work can have on a group like this. They went farther than they ever expected they would, did more good work than any of us had a right to expect them to do, and delivered on the promise to keep getting along and to keep the ride running.

It's no wonder if they got tired.
She got a new apartment it's out on the escarpment
And in her glove compartment are my songs
She hasn't even heard them since she found out what the words meant
She decided she preferred them all wrong
Kind of like the last time with a bunch of really fast times
If we're living in the past time soon gone
-Testing 1,2,3
And that is why I worried. I was afraid that I would miss the voice of Steve in the mix. Maybe it was hard for him to play the role, but the dark edge of his wit, and the honesty of his voice combined with the levity of the group to create great pop music. I knew that without the more upbeat influence of his friends, his solo work would probably not satisfy me, but I held out hope that they would be able to make something enjoyable even without him.
But I'm warning you, don't ever do
those crazy, messed up things that you do
If you ever do
I promise you I'll be the first to crucify you
Now it's time to prove that you've come back here
To Rebuild
Call And Answer
If you've come this far up memory lane with me, you may have noticed - I haven't mentioned anything about the new album. I intended to. I was bracing myself for having to write down in words what I thought and felt listening to it; but I decided that what I had to say would be unfair. There were some comments in my head, using words like "lassitude" and "lackluster"... but to aim them at people who have been so good to me over the years just seemed mean and pointless.

You might go ahead and check out All In Good Time; you might even find something there to enjoy. You might also like Steve's The Vanity Project. But all I heard was the voices that weren't there.

I hope they'll come back someday and rebuild.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Government: Who and What It Is

This is Part 3 of a series of essays I am writing after reading The Revolution: A Manifesto, by Dr. Ron Paul.  If you like, you can find Part I and Part II at these links.

The Establishment is and always has been a favorite target for abuse. Right or wrong, you can pick up a lot of support for your cause by contrasting it against a big, entrenched - and decidedly un-sexy - Establishment organization (aka, "The Man".) And whether you're a 1960s radical agitator or a Tea Party Express rider, it's easy to get carried away by the romantic ideal of bringing down the Bastards, and sweeping away your problems.

It's hard to argue against that impassioned radicalism, especially when you know what you're defending isn't perfect. Not only that, but Bureaucracy is always a vote loser, and maintaining the "status quo" is always looked upon as an oppressive move.

In my adult life, I have butted my head up against the Establishment and have complained loudly about Bureaucracy many times, and I have to admit - I'm not always right. As I heard one senior manager put it recently, "Bureaucracy exists to protect Government from whacky ideas." And some of my ideas are downright whacky.

In fact, when I consider the things I want to change about the world realistically, I've been forced to accept that Bureaucracy is not a Bad Thing(tm) in and of itself. I've written before on this blog about this:

That last Great Innovation happened 125 years ago, when a little known Republican "machine" politician named Chester Arthur was sworn in as U.S. President after the assassination of James Garfield. Arthur reformed the Civil Service and basically gave us the Bureaucracy that we all complain so much about these days. At the time, it was a huge improvement, bringing all of the shady deals and corruption of the system out into the light.

So, while instant change makes for a compelling rallying cry, for ideas to be accepted, they need to be proven first... to the Establishment. In America, the problem we have is in figuring out when something is sufficiently "proven" to warrant making a change. And in accepting that the Establishment is a Representative body of us. It is certainly frustrating, especially when you always feel like the one with the "right answer", and you always feel like you're being ignored.

From the beginning of his book, Dr. Paul professes to believe in our system of government. He analyzes the Constitution throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 3, where he excoriates President Bush and the Congress for overreaching their authorities in regards to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In other chapters he refers to the possibly unconstitutional body of laws regarding free trade and international organizations - laws which few people seem to understand. His observations are compelling, and I appreciate his point of view on issues and events which have disturbed me in recent years.

But what bothers me about Dr. Paul's approach is the pervasive assertion that our Government is innately bad; an outside influence, completely divorced from what the constituents want. He pays lip service to our system of government, but either implies - or states outright - that the laws we have in place are illegal, according to the Constitution, and imposed on us by unspecified Others we have no control over. It's a popular idea, often shared by whomever is in the current minority party or by groups which feel marginalized - and of course, by radicals looking to bring down the Establishment.

There are a few areas where I feel Dr. Paul takes this too far. He characterizes income taxes as a kind of armed robbery - despite the 16th Amendment, which specifically authorizes them. Regarding regulation of businesses, he refers repeatedly to Government as a thing outside ourselves, causing all of the problems that our society suffers. He argues passionately for that most Libertarian of ideas, that if Government would just butt out, we "free and unfettered" individuals and businesses could take care of ourselves.

I appreciate the difficult balancing act faced by all Libertarians in finding that area between "too many laws" and "anarchy." I recognize that getting their point across is hard to do without becoming pedantic and boring. And outlining the limits that they feel our Representatives have ignored is tricky; but pretending that Government - all Government - is the culprit in the equation is misleading and dangerous.

First of all, as Dr. Paul claims to believe from the beginning of his book, our government was formed to represent us. If the government fails to do so, it is directly our fault. We are to blame, because we "own" it. The main body of the Constitution outlines the system and the process for controlling our government. It's not as if Dr. Paul doesn't understand this; he seems aware that the Government is our tool for ensuring that we don't take advantage of each other. He discusses this in several places, notably in Chapter 4 (Economic Freedom), where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, William Leggett, and Walt Whitman at length to illustrate the idea:
" single enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men." (Whitman)

Reading this book, it becomes clear that he does not believe that our representatives, operating under our authorities granted by our Constitution have made the right laws. I would tend to agree that we have allowed our government to overstep those bounds, but I fear that Dr. Paul goes further than that. Throughout these pages, he implies or states outright that our Government has been hijacked by what are generically referred to as "special interests"* - another populist meme, and an attitude which I believe takes away the burden of personal responsibility that we are all supposed to share, and turns what is supposed to be our arbitrary instrument of control over how our lives are shaped into a foreign threat.

This amplifies the most dangerous meme Dr. Paul employs: that Americans are "forced" to obey our laws - in several places he decries any regulation of business, and repudiates the requirement to pay taxes. He hearkens back to the founding fathers repeatedly, citing their dislike for taxation, apparently forgetting that the rallying cry was not "no taxation", but rather "no taxation WITHOUT REPRESENTATION."

As for the "force" involved, I have spoken to many people about this over the years. Dr. Paul echoes this approach, which characterizes the collection of taxes as money being taken away at gunpoint by an authoritarian regime. At one point he asks the favorite Libertarian question: "don't you think you are entitled to keep the money that you earn?" This is always presented as a trump card; if you don't respond with an unqualified "Yes", then you are proven to be either a fool or a dupe. I often ask in reply, "don't you think you should pay for the services provided by your government?" Guess what that makes me.

But when you face facts, every individual does have the choice to NOT pay their taxes. There are certainly consequences for this - fines, jail time, sometimes even exile - but to imply that thugs from the IRS will come and rob you at gunpoint for failing to file is just plain silly. It's an exaggeration, and one we are inclined to accept because it sounds right.

In comparison, I recall how, after enlisting and signing all of the papers, I got to Basic Military training and heard all of the dire warnings of things that would happen to me if I failed to complete it. A lot of people hated Basic, and wanted to leave, and the truth is, despite all of the contracts and documents they signed, they could have done so at any time. Sure, there were consequences, depending on how they tried to leave - climbing the fence will get you arrested; pretending to be crazy will land you in a psychiatric ward for an extended visit - but at the end of the day, despite all of the threats, no one will shoot a recruit for deciding to go home. If you're desperate enough to get out, the worst you can expect is eternal disdain from those of us who fulfilled our commitments.

Following that logic, by choosing to remain a citizen, you have "volunteered" to pay your taxes; in our country, it's more of a fee for services provided than the arbitrary, emasculating excise most people consider it to be. And we all know what happens when you don't pay your bill. That's not robbery - at least not in a free market society - so much as the rule of law.

So my contention is that the Government which we occasionally choose to ignore or vilify, does represent us. We are asked to give up time, money, and effort in exchange for things like roads, education, and military security, and if we don't want to, we have the right to petition for changes in the law. Changing rules we don't like is not an "instant" process, and a citizen has to stay involved for a long time to make changes. And while I think we should seriously consider Dr. Paul's suggestions to limit the Government's power, we cannot and should not simply ignore or throw out the Bureaucracy which we use to protect ourselves.

I don't believe that Dr. Paul has proven his assertions about Government, and as I intend to explore in the next essay, I don't believe he has proven that his proposed solutions - namely, throwing away any Government regulation, taxation, or institutions - will have the positive affects on our economy that he asserts they would have.

*Terms like "special interests" and "agenda" seem to pop up a lot in our political discourse. They ring like accusations: "They caved in to 'special interest' groups", or "they have an 'agenda'!" But it's like accusing people of having skin or breathing; of course people with a common political goal with team together to promote their "special interest"; and they won't get far without an "agenda". These words by themselves do not make a case that their intentions are either good or bad.

Perspectives on a Manifesto - Part 2

What I was looking for.

Dr. Ron Paul ran for President about eight years too late, in my opinion. That is to say, if you believe in libertarian ideas and would like to see someone who holds them dear in the White House, it would have been better for him to run in 2000 than in 2008.

In 2000, I was weary of the Clinton era. I was tired of the baseless lunacy of the burgeoning Right Wing Media franchise and their constant attacks on the President, and I was tired of the unprincipled sleaze of the man in the White House. I was interested in the Libertarians because they seemed to reflect the common sense, middle ground that I felt I occupied. And the prospect of a Third Party rising that would allow people like me to support the traditional "lefty" causes (ie, be "socially liberal") and the traditional "righty" ideas (ie, be "fiscally conservative") was very attractive.

Dr. Paul's 2008 campaign seemed to be trying to build on that appeal. But by 2008, I was weary of hearing politicians claim that what they wanted was common sense, only to see them fail or get into office and begin pandering to one extreme or the other. It was easy to see where Barack Obama stood, and I respected (and still respect) his willingness to take a centrist position; and his party, while far from perfect, seemed willing to back him up. It was easy to see where John McCain wanted to stand, but his party seemed determined to continue what I see as the simultaneous bloat and erosion of our Federal government - and they had a history of betraying McCain in the past (see "Up, Simba!" for David Foster Wallace's fascinating analysis of the 2000 campaign), a pattern which Palin's nomination as VP seemed to guarantee would be their future strategy, as well.

In 2000, I would have readily embraced Dr. Paul's campaign ideas, but in 2008, I saw him as a tired snake-oil salesman, trying to ensure a Republican victory using discredited memes to lure independents away from Obama's platform. I didn't see any new ideas, just a lot of complaining about the way things were; I didn't see any solutions. And when I have expressed that opinion, supporters of Dr. Paul's revolution have told me to read his book. Considering his Third Party status, and the treatment given to Third Party candidates by the press, it's entirely likely that I didn't get a complete picture of what Dr. Paul was trying to communicate to us.

So, when I opened the book, I was looking for those solutions. I was looking for a vision of what we could realistically do to move in a better direction. I expect a little "Utopian exaggeration", and I expect more than a little criticism of the status quo. But what I want to see is more than that. I want to see how we're supposed to fix things.

I want to see the plans for what we're supposed to build.

What I Found

On the surface, there is much I agree with in Dr. Paul's book. I appreciate his anti-war stance; ironically, when I made many of these same arguments, I was labeled a pacifist liberal sissy by many of my friends and family. Dr. Paul is certainly none of those things. I also applaud his rejection of the creation of laws and federal institutions which have unintended consequences or are unenforceable and needlessly burdensome on our society. I agree with his analysis that many of our government's laws and policies intended to help the unfortunate and unite our wildly different demographic groups have in some cases served to perpetuate the problems they aim to solve.

But underneath some of these ideas, I see some dangerous mistakes. Dr. Paul makes some basic assumptions about what government means and about the basis of our economy which seem rooted in the past. It's good to know our history, but to ignore the direction that mankind is headed, and the fundamental changes that technology is bringing about is a fatal flaw.

I intend to explore some specifics in the next post, but I wanted to make it clear that I did not set out to pick a fight with libertarians or with Dr. Paul's supporters. I read this book hoping to learn whatever truth it was that motivated so many to support his dark horse campaign. There is a lot here to get excited about, and I don't want to seem like I am opposed to everything said here; no one is perfect, after all, and I don't expect anyone ever will be.

However, it would be wrong and foolish to ignore what I see as glaring errors in judgment. So, now that I've spent two "introductory" posts explaining the background, and trying to head off some of the more distracting possible responses, let's explore what those errors are...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Perspectives on a Manifesto - Part 1

Several friends have suggested that I read Ron Paul's book "The Revolution: A Manifesto" since the beginning of his 2008 campaign. Because the campaign is long over and these are my personal opinions about the issues and the underlying philosophies, rather than the candidate, I feel confident that I'm in no danger of violating the 1939 Hatch Act by putting my thoughts about this book here.

I do feel I am in danger of being misunderstood, however, based on some of the reactions I tend to provoke. To avoid that, I'd like to address some remarks commonly made by my readers in past discussions. If you have ever said any of these things, please rest assured that I am not singling you out, as the word "commonly" should indicate that more than one person has made the same comment in different contexts. (Hard as it may be to believe, you are not my only friend.)

So, if you've ever thought or said these things while reading my past discussions, please consider these points while reading my upcoming posts. It will save us both a lot of frustration if you do.

I just think ____ are so SMUG! Whatever you fill in that blank, you're probably right. People who believe strongly in their cause tend to sound overly confident about it. I apologize if I sometimes sound condescending, but there are times when I feel pretty confident about what I'm saying, or feel it is appropriate to use humor to express that idea. It's important that you, as a reader, recognize that your perception of my attitude (or the attitude of whomever we are discussing) doesn't change the substance of the argument. Often, though, the "smug" accusation is aimed at other who are beyond my control; all I can say is, I'm not them, so don't blame me for their attitude. In any case, attitude does not equate to right OR wrong, so don't be such a crybaby and address the ideas, not their presentation.

You're BIASED! or You just think you're right and everybody else is wrong. Well, yes. Everyone is "biased"...and why would I say anything at all if I didn't think I had something worth saying? As for my biases, I think I make them pretty clear. But don't mistake my chosen role as "devil's advocate" for "taking sides"... if I'm arguing with you, I will very likely disagree or contradict you a LOT before eventually making up my mind about your ideas. Don't give up too easily, unless you already know you're full of crap. ;)

You LIBERALS believe THIS.... Don't put me in a box, and then attribute everything OTHER people say to me. If you think my ideas or my logic are flawed, then address them. But don't fool yourself into thinking "his idea sounds like this group's position, so he must be one of them..." Don't waste our time arguing with people who aren't involved in the discussion at hand.

You're a HYPOCRITE because... Sometimes, I am confusing. Sometimes, I change my mind about things. I am only human, like you. claim to be "centrist", but you spend all your time attacking MY side. Sometimes I don't have time to waste slamming "the other side" just so you can feel like I devote "equal time" to "both sides". Part of that is your own fault for locking yourself into a "both sides" mindset when the truth is that there are far more than just two sides to the story. Most often, I "attack" (your word, not mine) the group that I feel should be on MY side, but has failed. I am also an opportunist; I only really pay attention to what drifts across my radar screen. Not only that, but when I take a position - such as being opposed to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which will be discussed later - even though there is strong opposition from both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum, the immediate assumption is that I'm taking that position because of the liberal agenda. This is a mistake on your part, not hypocrisy on my part. make arguments based on things you don't believe in. I don't think many of you have caught on to this, but I often build an argument out of ideas that I don't consider to be valid. For example, I am not a Christian, but I will cite scripture in my discussion; usually I do this because there is some religious element to the issue at hand, and I want the Christians I am speaking with to understand that there is a Biblical basis for a position that I am taking. It doesn't always matter why someone believes a particular way, but if we can agree on a position or solution, that's the outcome I'm looking for.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, as far as I'm concerned, we are not enemies. I don't even consider most of the things we are talking about to be "political" - because politics is all about negotiating and horse trading to take these philosophies and put them into practice. I'm really only interested in the underlying philosophies, and consider all of the partisan bickering to be a distraction from that discussion.

Now, let me get to work on that discussion...