Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lb4Lb#11 - The Trouble With Hippies

I was not a "child of the '60's" by any stretch of the imagination.

My exposure to the 1960s was solely through the filter of my very straight-laced parents and their record collection: Dean MartinThe MonkeesGlen CampbellCherPeter, Paul and Mary, and... Leonard Nimoy. Yes. THAT Leonard Nimoy. The Way I Feel (you should find the LP some time and check it out). We had a couple of Beatles records, but as I later discovered, they fell out of favor after John Lennon's remark about being "bigger than Jesus" - and that copy of Rubber Soul was as close as I got to "counter-culture" until high school.
Thinking positivity
If you wanna be with me
I'll take you to the promised land
Come on baby take my hand
Stop Draggin Around
Of course, I did grow up in the 1980s, and nostalgia for "flower power" was all the rage. I missed a lot of that because our family lived out in the sticks, and we didn't have a VCR until 1989 - so while my friends were into the Vietnam-era war pics and Cheech & Chong, I was mostly sitting home, not a part of the whole scene.

Not that I wanted any part of it - that silly hippy-dippy drug culture stuff was for sinners. I was deep into my church and considered myself above all of that nonsense. I saw myself as above it all, and I resisted "temptation" like a good boy.
I've been lost in the name of love
And we kill our brothers daily in the name of god
We'd better chill before we take on some tribulation
And if we realized
Then we'd make a little love
now sing
What The Fuck Are We Saying
Puberty changes things. That is an intentional understatement.

It was easy to dismiss the New Age philosophy and all of the political talk of the 1960s with the benefit of hindsight (and lots of coaching from Grandpa and my church family), but hormones bring home a truth that is hard to ignore. Feeling my body take over my mind in so many ways made me understand that "control" is not simply a matter of following rules. I began to recognize that the things people feel are real to them - and unless you've felt what they feel, you can't judge them.
My mama said
That it's good to be fruitful
But my mama said
Don't take more than a mouthful
And my mama said
That it's good to be natural
And my mama said
That it's good to be factual
Always On The Run
After I started questioning my principles, I was freed to explore things that I had always disdained. Music was the most exciting area to explore, because it felt both defiant and safe; I could try out crazy ideas without necessarily DOING crazy things. I could listen to stories and feelings and see places and pieces of history that had passed me by while I was trying to fit the world inside my Bible.

Some things are easier to get into than others, though, and a lot of the really revolutionary, underground, and radical stuff from the Summer of Love and the early 1970s still shocked my sensibilities. I couldn't get into Lennon's politically charged anthems, I couldn't grasp Jimi's wild guitar work, and I really had no idea what to make of Zeppelin. There were singles that I liked, but there was so much out there - and much of it was so FAR out there - that I couldn't figure out where to start.

And there was another wrinkle to this musical blockage.

A white Southern Baptist kid never feels comfortable with certain things. What it is they are uncomfortable with will vary, but for me, it is Soul music. It's not that I don't like it, but rather that I become self-conciously hyper-aware while I am listening to it that I am an awkward white kid, and that something deeply sexual is happening that I should probably not be exposed to. Much of the Sixties vibe revolves around an exploration of Soul. Sometimes it's more Blues, sometimes it's covered up by the bombast of Rock; but underneath it all is the sexually charged subtext of black people and their freedom from the Puritanical roots that my ancestors instilled in their descendants.
So many tears I've cried
So much pain inside
Baby it ain't over 'til it's over
So many years we've tried
And kept our love alive
'Cause Baby it ain't over 'til it's over
It Ain't Over Til It's Over
All of which brings me to my point: why Mama Said is such an important album to me. With all of these many paragraphs of prologue, you might be expecting something deep, but like the counter-culture, and hippies, and free love and drugs, there's really not much beneath the surface.

There is an important thing inside all of us that sets limits. For people like me, those limits can sometimes be deeply ingrained, almost like a moat, and it takes something special to bridge the gap to the other side. Lenny's sophomore album made these things safe for me.

That was all I needed.
You say you can't trust me
Have you tried?
You say you don't love me
That's a lie
There are so many so many rainbows
That we were to climb
But baby baby why can't we survive?
We've got to get our heads untangled
And free our state of mind
The Difference Is Why
Lenny's music is not deep - the lyrics border on vapid, and the rhymes are sometimes forced to the point of ridiculousness. The music has been widely criticized as being derivative of Hendrix and Zeppelin, and there's no doubt that this is true.


For a white suburban Southern Baptist kid intimidated by his sexuality and the wide world he was facing, Mama Said gave me a place to relate and unwind. It didn't matter that this guy was singing - in falsetto! - about sex, because it was relatively harmless. (At least compared to Prince.) And it didn't matter that the guitars were only a little loud (courtesy of Slash), because these songs rocked! It felt to me like what it was for Lenny: a celebration of a lot of really good things.

The trouble with hippies is that they tend to be shallow and frivolous. But somehow, the magic of this album was that it didn't have to be deep or important. It wanders through Fields of Joy, and if you learn to relax, you will find that the limits you set for yourself don't have to be shattered to be softened. You don't have to destroy yourself to grow. You can just take it as it comes.

And there's really nothing wrong with that at all.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

You Might Even Have Fun

The Washington Post has this column discussing nine ideas for "fixing" our political problems. First among the ideas they say Won't Work is this persistent notion that a Third Party candidate will come along and topple the equally corrupt and repellent Republican/Democrat paradigm.  As they say, ‎"The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support..." a slate of populist, moderate issues.

If it isn't clear from my earlier writings, I've been hopeful about that happening myself.  But I agree that this non-existent Third Party won't be able to do this from the top down.  Even if a group could rally behind a candidate, that person would have no political support structure in office.  Who would they nominate for the hundreds of Cabinet and judicial positions? Who would a Third Party candidate have in Congress to propose and manage their legislative goals?

The Post also points out how the experiment of Americans Elect to use the internet as a tool to rally around these erstwhile Third Party aspirants has largely failed.  Personally, I think they should have spent their money on a secure website that lets members build a profile of their various beliefs/opinions/expertise, and then "matches" them to local candidates. Something like a "dating" site for voters to find compatible candidates.

There are some sites like this out there already - you can play with sites like Select Smart 2012,
 Glassbooth.organd even the USA Today Match game,  just to name a couple - but they tend to use slanted test questions that lump people into broad categories or offer a superficial percentage of "how similar" they are to the mainstream candidates. I'm talking about a more academically rigorous set of questions designed to get past the labels people adopt and find out what their "ideal candidate" would look like - then compare that "ideal" to the profiles of available candidates. 

Of the sites that exist, Glassbooth starts out close to what I would envision as the "getting started" phase; when you set up your profile on Tad's Educated Voter site, you would get a slate of a dozen or so issues that you can rate on a scale from "Care deeply" to "Deep apathy" - and mark whether you are eligible or willing to run for public office. Then over time, the app would notify members of new questions or issues, send out "straw polls," and basically ask things intended to refine everyone's profile and draw out something deeper than "do you support/oppose gay marriage" or "support/oppose Big Government" - loaded questions with a lot of hidden nuance.

The trick would be to get actual candidates to build a profile, too, so they could be compared in a more realistic way to potential constituents.  This would be easier to do at local levels, in my opinion.  Or, even better, if you want to really harness the 'Net and enable true democracy, this site should match members up with any office for which they are eligible to run.  If they are interested, they can identify themselves on the site as Candidates, and let their profile get matched to those of potential voters - so everyone involved could see a deeper, more accurate comparison with a real candidate AND that candidate could gauge the likely level of support they could get before throwing in their hat.

That part of the site - the collecting of information about people's opinions - has a lot of possibilities, both for use and abuse. Protecting User privacy and avoiding even the faintest whiff of sponsorship-corruption would be crucial.  But if you can build that trust, and give people reliable guidance, I think that would be of enough value to people that they would sign up - at least for the initial curiosity factor.

But my point is that we've already seen viral quiz-taking, political activity apps, and a wide variety of social networking sites that nobody thought would survive take off in the last several years.  If this "Candidate Match-making" site were built, I have no doubt it could be turned into something truly useful for both voter education and for improving voter participation in state & local politics.  To me, the possibility of being able to see what a candidate really thinks before I vote for her would be worth the effort of putting together my own profile. Once there is a large enough community base, I'm sure the idea that any potential candidate could reach out to an anonymous, but still vetted, group of potential voters and ask them to share the link to their campaign materials FOR FREE would be worth the effort of putting together their profile.

Now, to go back to that Post article, think about the other things on their list of ideas that will/won't work that would be fixed by a system like the one I just described.  If the site itself is non-partisan and non-profit, wouldn't that address some of the campaign finance and voter participation issues?  If voters are engaged, AND inspired to run, wouldn't that competition address the Term Limits issue?  And who knows... a lot of people who are bored by our current system might actually enjoy this.

I know a lot of people in web design, and a lot of people who have studied political sciences and sociology - I have no doubt they could join forces (even if they disagree on party politics) and come up with the right mix of questions, the right user interface, and the right API to tie into Facebook and Twitter.  I offer myself as a User/Guinea Pig if you launch one of these sites.

Who knows... it might actually help.  And you might even have fun doing it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

We Are Better Than That

Someone on the radio was pleading his case to change public policy tonight, and while I can't quite recall the topic, I remember thinking, "Yeah, right, buddy.  In today's political climate, even if you're right, you will get shot down for suggesting the government try to change THAT. And then he said something that both won and lost his argument for him all at once:

We're better than that.

I stopped listening to the news at that point, and must have switched over to the ipod.  But I kept hearing him say it, over and over. You could hear in his voice that he didn't just think he was right - he knew it - but he also knew that ultimately he would lose whatever battle he was fighting. He would lose because you can't force people to do the right thing.  We're Americans, and you can't tell us what to do.

We're better than that.

I remember visiting my grandparents in 2001.  Grandpa's health was failing.  He suffered from Alzheimer's, joint ailments, and we didn't know it at the time, but he had lung cancer. That was what killed him - even though he had given up cigarettes in the 1950s.

He and grandma were living in an RV on a campsite located on the San Carlos Apache Reservation near Peridot, Arizona. Uncle Russ was having to drive out there once a week (about 50 miles from Phoenix) to get him, take him to his medical appointments at the VA Clinic in Globe, and take him back home.  It was summer, and we sat with squirming babies in the tiny motor home, visiting beaming elderly people in 95 degree heat with two little vent fans blowing on the six of us.

I asked them why they didn't let the family put them up in a place in town?  We could visit more often, they'd be more comfortable, and we insisted it wouldn't be a financial burden.  Grandma recoiled.  "Oh, we couldn't live in an apartment in the city!" she said, in a tone that said, "That's just too low class."

We're better than that.

These days, I hear people complaining about our alleged "Big Government." They sneer about the so-called nanny state, insisting that if people were given all the options and left alone, they would chose the best path for themselves. This runs against all evidence to the contrary, of course, as most people tend to make their decisions based on everything but logic and reason.

People buy what they want, whether they can afford it or not, because it appeals to them.  They eat what they want because it tastes good, or is cheap - not because it will make them healthy. They rationalize their actions day and night, voting to deny others the right to do what they are sneaking around behind their spouses' backs to do.  They drive too fast, playing with phones and drinks and makeup; they are fine to drive because they only had a few.

We're better than that.

I watched people changing lanes without using turn signals, and speeding through the rain, and I thought about that statement.  What an assertion of defiant, unreasoning hope.  What a ridiculous notion.  Both true and false, the unassailable losing argument of the desperate.

I watch people bristle at civility campaigns, and defend the bullies running for office. I watch states violate individuals' rights to marry, and then watch the same people moan about Big Government intrusions.  I watch people stuff salt & fat-laden foods into bodies already on the verge of developing diabetes while they complain about health care plans.

We're not better than that.  We're exactly that.  We like to tell ourselves that we're above the rest, that we're exceptional.  It's our great pride that makes us think we've got answers and ideals worth invading and imposing on others - as long as no one tries to impose anything on US... because we're better than that.

But are we?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Unsupported [Ass]ertions

I have many friends from across the political spectrum who do not share my point of view on the U.S. economy these days.  Unfortunately, it's hard to pin anyone down for a realistic discussion about what our respective points of view even are - we're all busy, either working or looking for work - and most people don't have time to lay out any kind of cohesive argument.  So most of the time we end up sniping at each other over news items, throwing around straw man arguments, and generally not being very satisfied with the answers on any side.
So, since I laid this down on Facebook today, I thought I'd move it here to serve as a "this is what I think your argument is" post for those who wish to present a more thorough representation of their point of view.
Let me see if I can do your argument justice:
"No budget should spend more than its income. Spending has been too high for too long, and we count money given to the poor and/or unemployed to be 'spending'. However, we don't count money given in the form of subsidies or tax breaks to large corporations as 'spending,' though, and we object to the idea that those corporations should have to pay their 'fair share' because it's not fair that 51% of the U.S. population doesn't pay taxes either."

Referring to my own blog again (forgive the narcissism), the amounts given away through loopholes to even just a few companies exceeded the amounts paid out to the poor. That tells me that the "spending problem" doesn't lie with the poor.

The real, glaring problem is that quibbling over a few billion here and a few million there doesn't address the trillions in the debt. Arguments like yours try to erode the palatability of "entitlements," building up the image of the government-dependent Welfare Queen as the root of our money problems. While I think that's wrong in and of itself, the logical error is to then try to equate the moneys devoted to actual welfare programs (TANF, SNAP, WIC, Unemployment) with actual entitlement programs - Social Security, and Medicare. These are where the massive amounts of monetary outlays are, and the problem with disparaging entitlements is that unlike the smaller scale, temporary help offered by TANF, SNAP, WIC, et al Social Security and Medicare are actual entitlements. Meaning that the recipients have already paid into the system in previous years, and are entitled to the payments previously agreed to.

The next page of your argument reads like this: "The economy is bad because taxes are excessive, which makes Job Creators afraid to hire more people. If taxes were reduced, they would hire more."

This part of the argument relies on ignoring the[se] facts: effective corporate tax rates are lower than they have been since the 1950s (PDF source - Tax foundation) while corporate profits have more than recovered from the recession (PDF source - BEA).

Meanwhile, critical infrastructure spending - which I think should have been the core of the 2009 Stimulus package still needs to be taken care of. Transportation and (surprise) investing in energy efficiency and technology development should get plussed up - along with adult education to help the jobless find work in an economy that doesn't need as many people doing pre-internet jobs. (Right now, there is a shortage of truck drivers - a~$50k/year job - and truck-driving school can cost several thousand dollars).

Refusing to take steps that would directly boost employment in the name of "protecting Job Creators" who don't need the help is disingenuous, irresponsible, and... unfortunately... the chosen political strategy of the opposition.

Did I represent you well enough...?