Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Obama, Vick, Carlson .... Racism, Fear, Hate, and Silliness

The Michael Vick story is getting silly. I think it is important to lay out some facts.

First let us focus on the crime itself. Michael Vick committed a crime. Many of us believe that what he did was horrible. Michael Vick killed and tortured animals. He did not kill human beings. Many other people kill animals (farmers, hunters), and many more of us eat and wear animals. Michael Vick was raised in an area where many people are involved in dog fighting.

Now, on to what happened to Michael Vick. He was in jail. He served his time and was released. He resumed his job. Michael Vick happens to be a gifted athlete. He also happens to have spent his off days talking to school children about what he did. He also happened to mention he would want to own a dog, when he is again legally able to do so.

Now let’s focus on the people getting upset. Many are upset because President Obama said it was good that Vick had, and is taking advantage of, a second chance. Many of these people are conservatives or Republicans. Many of them have been vocal opponents of Obama. Many are hinting at race as an issue here, even though there is not a scintilla of evidence of this. Tucker Carlson, an analyst on the not at all unbiased Fox Network, said Michael Vick should be executed.

Here is the conclusion that I reach. People are upset about this because they see this as an opportunity to attack Obama and stoke fear and anger. Many of these people are being hypocritical (they aren’t animal lovers, but Obama haters). This isn’t true of everyone, of course. But, it is hard to find a legitimate reason to deny someone who has been punished for his wrongdoing a chance to resume his career and life. It is also hard to find a real reason to be angry at someone who is pleased that the legal system seems to have worked to rehabilitate a criminal.

To sum up my feelings plainly, and a bit crassly, this crap should not be a part of the political discourse.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Rahm Emanuel

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has found that Rahm Emanuel is a resident of Chicago and is eligible to run for mayor. That is exactly what they should have found. He left to join the Obama Administration and serve his country, and clearly always had the intention to come back to Chicago. Challenges to his residency are political machinations more familiar in African Politics (i.e. the challenges to Alassane Ouattara's residency in the Ivory Coast). It's really pretty sad that this is an issue. It's equally sad that State Senator James Meeks is pulling out of the race so that the Black community is more likely to rally around a black candidate. When whites talk like that regarding Obama it's racism. You should choose whoever you want to be your mayor. It would be nice if you choose him or her based on their qualifications. If Rahm Emanuel isn't your choice for mayor, don't vote for him.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

How to find fault with Obama

I've decided to help out the critics of Obama by listing a few things you shouldn't do if you're interested in doing anything other than preach to the choir. If all you want to do with your arguments is rant and rave and/or make yourself feel better in one way of the other, disregard what follows. If you want to engage the rest of us in a discussion about what has gone right and what has gone wrong over the last two years, then you should avoid the following.

Do not use the words socialist, fascist, communist, or Nazi. Obama is not a fascist, a communist, a socialist, or a Nazi. He also isn't a Muslim. And he was born in this country. Most of us accept these things, and accept that they are beside the point. Whether he is a communist or not doesn't change the particulars of health care reform, and shouldn't impact your ability to talk about the actual issues. When you say these things, most of the rest of us tune out everything you have to say.

Do not talk about Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayers. These two men have nothing to do with the last two years. They had little to do with Obama's fitness for the presidency at anytime. Now the only reason to bring them up is to take our attention off of real issues. If politicians refer to these folks, they are trying to motivate you to support them by appealing to fear and hate rather than really talking about the issues.

Do not talk about Obama's vacations or his wife's dresses. For the record, it was just as beside the point when people talked about Bush's trips. Most of us that think Bush was a less than stellar President (and I'll be honest that I think a case can be made he was the worst President since at least Coolidge) are not caught up in golf trips and gaffes, but are focused on his overly simplistic view of right and wrong and of the world around us, the fact that he tortured people and had no problem compromising what we feel to be central American values, the fact that he got us into a war that he had no plan for getting out of, the fact that he oversaw a flawed reorganization of our disaster preparedness bureaucracy allowing Katrina to be what it was, etc. We'd like to talk about the same kinds of real issues when we evaluate Obama.

Do not talk about big government. It's the same government that every President works with. Besides, big government is an empty term. Instead of talking about big government, try talking about what you really mean.

Don't talk about "liberals." Now I know this is a hard one, but labels like these turn people off (particularly those you are labeling) and do nothing to advance dialogue. Just discuss the issues, and leave the name calling for the playground.

Don't label yourself an average American and others elites. It's just more name calling. It too needs to be kept at the playground.

Don't cal it Obamacare. It doesn't make you interested in dialogue.

Don't refer to black resentment or angry black people. Really? Where is the place for race here. I have no doubt that many people dislike Obama because he is Black. I'd appreciate it if they just came out and said that. Be honest. Don't hide behind talk of angry preachers or reparations. Just say "I don't like him because he is black." Also, as is true of many of these, when politicians make race references (i.e. Sarah Palin) they are trying to gain your support through fear or anger. They are using you. They don't think you can comprehend the real issues, they can't comprehend the real issues, they don't think it's worth their time to try to talk to you honestly, or they don't think any one would support them if they just talked honestly and logically about what they want to do and why.

Now, these are just a few rules. There are more. It can get confusing, and we are all guilty of errors like these at one time or the other. The best way to stay in the clear is to really talk about issues, to take one issue at a time, and to close your mouth and listen when you are done talking. That is how we will solve the problems that are facing all of us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

UConn Women's Basketball Win Streak

The women's basketball team at the University of Connecticut now has won a lot of games in a row. This victory streak is quite an accomplishment. They have won more than any women's basketball team has ever won in a row. They have also won more than any men's basketball team has ever won in a row. They have not won as many 'games' as Penn State's volleyball team has won. They don't play volleyball or men's basketball. Women's sports are not as watched as men's sports at any level. Women's sports are not as closely followed by the media. Women's basketball, like every other women's sport doesn't make as much money as its male equivalent. Many sports fans do not consider women's basketball to be equivalent to men's basketball; they do not even think it is entirely the same sport.

These are all facts. They are part of what needs to be sorted through when thinking about this accomplishment and whether it is being given its due. I think that it is being given adequate recognition as a sports accomplishment. You may reach a different conclusion. The important thing in this, and every discussion, is that we lay understand what the conclusions are and what they are based on and that we stay away from hyperbole and histrionics.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Real Life

Politics needs to be more in touch with real life. After all, somewhere long ago people came together in small communities and then larger communities to improve the quality of their real lives. They started farms, specialized, and chose and/or accepted leaders because they wanted to feel more secure, have more to eat, have more control over their lives, and generally have a fuller and more rewarding existence. People still want that. Government still is needed to help provide and facilitate that. This needs to be our starting point here in America. We need to start by asking are people fed? Do people feel secure? Do they feel they have control over their lives? Then we need to talk about what Government can do to make the answers be "yes." Then we need to take the essence of those discussions, and apply them to issues like abortion, health care, nuclear disarmament, etc. We need to return to basics and get back on the same page and talking the same language. We need to be dedicated to understanding and solving problems. We need to be more in touch with real life.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Average Americans

In an article criticizing "liberals" for making fun of John Boehner's recent shedding of tears, Ruben Navarrette writes something that is silly, baseless, and insulting; something that politicians on the right are increasingly using to substitute for logic, real solutions, analysis, etc. He says, "Liberals make fun of Sarah Palin because, despite their declared affection for average Americans, they can't stand the sight of one." (http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/12/16/navarrette.boehner.crying/index.html)

Now, there are a couple of other problems with this article. The old "liberal" label is one. It is a classic personal attack ad hominem, an attack on the messager rather than the message. It is also innuendo. Navarrette doesn't stop there. He is also startlingly inconsistent, as he somehow manages to insinuate Bill Clinton's crying is cheap and contrived while arguing that the "usually emotional liberals" are wrong to criticize Boehner for crying when they usually laud crying as an attribute. Of course, the very issue seems a little trivial, and not worthy of commentary when there would seem to be more important things to discuss than how we should regard John Boehner's tears.

I'll give you something more worthy of discussing: "Liberals make fun of Sarah Palin because, despite their declared affection for average Americans, they can't stand the sight of one." Just reading it makes me angry. Conservatives have increasingly taken on this strategy. You label yourself an average American, and then when someone criticizes what you say you attack them for making fun of the thoughts of an average American. When someones asks you to describe what "big government" is, you scoff and call them an elitist who is trying to confuse people and you again refer to yourself as an average American trying to protect other average Americans. average American becomes a substitute for real argument. Why explain why you didn't know where Russia was, just call yourself an average American. Is the message that average Americans don't think through issues? Is the message that they don't need real explanations? Is the message that they aren't ever wrong? Is the message that people who disagree with them aren't average Americans? Is the message that they aren't real Americans.

Whatever the message is, it is certainly shallow and sickening. Shame on Ruben Navarrette for stooping to it, and shame on everyone else who does the same. We need to start to call people out for this kind of insulting nonsense. We need to make people give us arguments supported with logic rather than insults. We need to act like we are all Americans and all need to solve the problems facing us by working together.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Pope and Unequal Injustice

On Thursday Pope Benedict the XVI said that Christians suffered more persecution than any other group. He said: "At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith." He called upon authorities around the world, but particularly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East, to "act promptly to end every injustice."

I'm all for ending injustice, even if only a few of them. I'm not really into keeping people out of churches or killing priests. I don't even think it's a good idea to force Christians out of their homes, be it in the West Bank or anywhere else. That being said, I think the Pope is off base and being, dare I say, un-Christian. I also think he is, in the tradition of all Catholic leaders, being rather shortsighted.

I'm not sure that Christians are more persecuted than any other religious group, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter. I'm positive it shouldn't. I'm not the most observant of Christians, and I'm certainly not any kind of Catholic. While my Grandfather was raised Roman Catholic he married a Mormon, and all hell broke loose after that. All that being said, however, I always thought I had a pretty good grasp on what the core of being a Christian was. I thought it was about understanding. I thought it was about trying to help others. I thought it was about trying to end injustice everywhere.

Now I know the bible is full of the smoting of all varities of non-believer, as well as slavery and small minded bigotry. I also know the world has a few small minded bigots in it who call themselves Christian, but I always chalked that up to self delusion. In others I just chalked it up to not knowing any better. I knew the leaders of many Churches were as misguided as their followers, but I didn't really think they were being 'Christian' either. I still think I'm right, that the message that Jesus puts forward, whoever you think him to be, is one of understanding and love. But, I could be wrong.

I might be wrong. The Pope might be the most Christian person in the whole wide world. He may be really tapped into what it means to be Christian. He is, however, clearly shortsighted. You would think that a focus on ending injustice against everybody would be a better focus. The Church does speak out against injustice against non-Christians. So why even hint that injustice against Christians may be on a different level, or different in anyway. It would seem to be a good thing to be known as the Church that is concerned about all injustice equally. Of course, it would seem to be a good thing to be the Church that is unequivocally against child molestation.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Our elected representatives are acting abnormally

It's not normal for any two people to agree on everything. Elected representatives are people too ... so when all the representatives from a particular political party voice similar opinions and vote together most of the time, it is, at the very least, abnormal. When they vote and express opinions in this way, strictly along party lines, and their constituents aren't all from one party and don't share their views on every issue, since no other human would of his or her own accord, then the motivating force behind their decision making is revealed. Representatives in this scenario, our scenario, are putting the party's needs and interests above all others.

It's really pretty simple. Yes, you come together with like minded people in a political party. Yes this is entirely natural. No, you shouldn't agree on everything. If you do, the party's interests have come to predominate and something needs to change.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cliff Lee and Decision Making

Everyone who follows sports, and even a few folks who don't, is shocked about Cliff Lee signing with the Philadelphia Phillies for less money ... tens of millions less. In the Philly Suburbs everyone is shocked and jubilant. I understand the jubilant. The shocked is more perplexing. Did you choose your last job based only on money? Did you not give a thought to your potential commute, who you might be working with, what you would be asked to do, the hours you might be asked to work, the work culture, the pressure you would be under, etc.? When you make an important decision you are unlikely to consider only one factor. When you buy a television, price is unlikely to be the only concern. Size, resolution, manufacturer, and retailer are all likely to figure in. When you choose a doctor, I would assume you consider more than whether your insurance covers the doctor. The office location is probably important, as is whether you like the doctor or whether you feel the office staff are friendly and responsive. You probably didn't choose your spouse solely based on salary, although IO am sure there are times my wife wished she did! Anyway, the bottom line is that when you make an important decision you consider more than one factor.

So ... the same should be true when it comes to making a political decision. Whether or not you vote for your the incumbent congressman in your district should depend on more than his vote on the Iraq War. How you feel about abortion should rely on more than the fact you find life to be sacred. How you feel about a particular proposal to raise taxes should depend on more than the fact that you would rather not pay higher taxes. Whether or not you support Health Care reform should go beyond whether or not you are frightened by 'big government'. It would be nice if people could consider as many factors when they decide who to vote for or whether to oppose lifting the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy as they put into deciding which GPS device to purchase. Where our country ends up going seems at least as important as whether you can make it to an afternoon appointment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning

Opinions on Private Manning, what he has done, and what should be done with him run the gamut. Many of them share an important quality, however ... they are misguided in instructive ways.

Berkeley's City Council is debating whether or not to honor him wit a resolution. The point of this isn't really clear. To me it seems to be the political equivalent of masturbation. It will give the council pleasure, but it doesn't produce much. It will perpetuate Berkeley's image as radical and out of touch, and serve to make some folks pretty mad. Other than that, it's a pointless gesture. Berkeley is a great place to live, but they don't have great public schools, have continuing problems with how to deal with the homeless, and have a real issue with parking. Right there, three issues they could be dealing with rather than wasting their time on Private Manning.

There have been a number of rallys for Bradley Manning. By all means, rally around that which you believe in ... but is this really the kind of pressing issue that should rouse you out of your house and into the streets?


Apparently someone wrote on their facebook page that "only hippies and terrorists support this traitor." That is a classic fallacy, a personal attack ad hominem. Rather than attacking a position with substantive criticism, you attack the person who is holding the position.

Former U.S. ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, a House Intelligence Committee member, have told media outlets they believe Manning should be charged with treason and executed. Of course that is what we should do with people who disagree with government policies in the land of the free.

There isn't a right response to Private Manning's actions, except that there is. The right way to approach it is to think critically and with as little emotion as possible, and to factor in American values (like freedom of speech), American interests, the rules of the armed forces, Private Manning's personal issues and concerns, the greater threat posed by Wikileaks, the impact all of this has on America's image, etc.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Myth of the Maverick Judge

A Virginia judge overturned part of the Health Care Legislation. I’m not too concerned with it, because in the grand scheme it does not mean much. There have been two other Federal Court decisions going the other way. There will be more lower court decisions to come. Ultimately, this will have to be resolved in higher courts, and I personally find it hard to believe it will be overturned, but time will tell. What interests me about the decision is the fact that the Judge in question is a Bush appointee. Many people complain about the judges and the judicial branch of government. They complain that judges are out of step with the people and too independent of politicians. Of course, this ignores the facts that in many ways they were intended to be those things. It also ignores the reality that in many ways they are not. Bush v. Gore is evidence of that. All the controversy over judicial appointments during the Bush and now Obama Presidency is evidence of that. The influence of the latest wave of Bush appointees is evidence of that. This Virginia decision might be evidence of that. These are realities that we have to consider when we talk about the judicial system, if we are really interested in taking the vision of our founders and logically fitting it into the reality in which we now live.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Insults

Here is something to keep your eye out for … personal insults. For me, a personal insult is more than just calling someone a dumb ass. It also includes saying something like, “that is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” or “serious people wouldn’t say something so stupid.” When you hear someone say this, you should completely disregard it. If you can communicate with the person saying this, tell them to stick to the issue. These sorts of comments have nothing to do with the issue at hand and they don’t support or weaken anyone’s position. They are, however, ubiquitous. So, be on the lookout for them in what you read, hear, see … and say.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Of parking lots and politics

Today, on the way home from a Christmas event, I stopped at Wal-Mart so that my daughter could use the bathroom. I pulled onto the little access road that borders the parking lot, and prepared to turn into the parking lot. One car was turning right out of the lane that I was hoping to turn left into. I had no stop sign, and the car would not have been an impediment in any event, so I began to turn, only to have to swerve when the driver of the car second in line to get out of the lane pulled into my path. I honked, and went on to the next lane. The driver of the other vehicle sounded her horn a good half dozen times as she drove off into the night.

This little parking lot vignette illustrates two things that a critical thinker needs to be aware of when it comes to politics. First of all, when someone disagrees with you or points out an error in your thinking, just asserting that they are wrong and you are right is seldom the way to go. It is important to be open to the possibility that you are wrong. Second, it is important to be aware of the ad hominem fallacy, both in the arguments of others and in your own arguments. I was very tempted to include a few details in my description. The car was not the newest. I believe it was an old Chevy Cavalier. The driver had a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in days. Her clothes did not look to be straight off the runway. All of this would have jazzed up my prose, but it has nothing to do with whether the woman was right to honk. All too often we poke fun of and/or attack someone when we disagree with them. This just distracts us from the problems that we are presumably trying to solve.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that discussing politics isn’t much different from driving in a parking lot, or a million other mundane tasks. There is a better, more respectful and productive, way to go about doing it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Scary Tax Plans

Today, Larry Summers warned Congress that failing to approve the tax plan hammered out with Republican leaders could lead to a double-dip recession in 2011.

This is a scare tactic. This is an appeal to fear, and a common one these days. It seems everybody is throwing something like this into their arguments. If you don't support my plan, we might well plunge further into depression. Maybe it's true, but it seems to me to be more calculated to cause a reaction than anything else. It really seems aimed at scaring folks into thinking this compromise must be passed. It seems aimed at scaring folks into putting pressure on their elected representatives to support this compromise, and scaring the representatives into supporting it in order to avoid the fallout should they not support it and a double-dip recession (with sprinkles?) really happen.

It is important to point out that the use of scare tactics says nothing about the substance of the position. Larry Summers might well be right. He, and others, have given loads of other justifications for their positions. This comment, however, really has little to do with why he might be right. It is not a real reason to support this tax compromise. It is a scare tactic.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What is the issue?

An issue is a question. When you have an argument, it is simply an answer to an issue. When you think about politics, you need to make sure you know what the issue is. You need to make sure that everyone is addressing the same issue. You need to make sure everyone is addressing the right issue.

Abortion provides a perfect illustration of where things can get messy. What is the issue? Here is what it's not. The issue in abortion is not when does life begin. Abortion is taking a life. Anyone who denies it is out of their mind. Clearly a fetus is alive. Now, the issue is also not whether or not we can take a life. That one has a pretty clear answer: yes. Sometimes it is OK to take a life, be it plant or animal (including human animals). The circumstances in which a life can be taken are far from agreed upon, and that is where the issue of abortion fits in. The main issue with abortion is whether, when balanced against the rights of a woman and the realities of the child to be's life, abortion should be allowed as an option for women who are pregnant.

Of course, there isn't just one abortion related issue. One that is not talked about enough, is why do people have abortions? If we are interested in preventing abortions, that is an important issue. Another neglected issue is how do we assist people after they decide not to have an abortion? Do we only care whether they stay alive until birth. How can we make abortions more difficult to procure is not an important issue. Abortions are not like tobacco. People don't want to have abortions. It's not addictive.

The bottom line is that we have to know what the question is before we can answer it. If we are really interested in answering questions and in solving problems, then we need to spend a little time and energy agreeing on the issues.

Monday, December 6, 2010

William Ayers

William Ayers is a retired professor. He was recently denied emeritus status at the University of Illinois Chicago, where he taught for 23 years. The decision of whether to grant emeritus status is supposed to be based upon merit. Ayers denial was not based on merit, but instead was based on a personal grudge. Ayers was wrongly denied emeritus status.

Ayers, of course, is more than just a retired professor. He was a founding member of the Weather Underground, a radical group connected to numerous bombings in the 1970s. Ayers participated in bombings. He also dedicated a book to a list of people he referred to as political prisoners. Included on the list was Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, the father of Christopher Kennedy, who is the Chair of the University of Illinois Trustees. Christopher Kennedy said that he could not confer emeritus status on "a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father."

Ayers was denied emeritus status because in a list included in a book he wrote 36 years ago, before he even became a professor, he listed the assassin of Robert Kennedy as a political prisoner. This is disgusting. Do two wrongs make a right? Is Kennedy's personal vendetta more important than a 23 year career? Is Kennedy's personal vendetta acceptable because he is a Kennedy? Is this punishment for what Ayers did with the Weather Underground? Is this a way to punish him despite the fact that charges were dropped due to illegal activity by the FBI?

This is a perfect example of abandoning process when it doesn't produce the desired results. It reminds me of the Bush administrations use of torture and military tribunals. It is shortsighted. Process is important. It creates predictability and fairness. It protects us all from the whims and vendettas of our neighbors. It should not be lightly abandoned, even for a terrorist.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sarah and Kate go camping

Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin are going camping. I'm not sure what else there is to say. That this is entertainment says something about the entertained. That either one of these two women would be seriously talked about as a presidential candidate says something too. It says that our worlds are coming together, and they are coming together at a point closer to Jerry Springer, Nancy Grace, Celine Dion, and Confederate flags than Charlie Rose, Sixty Minutes, Bob Dylan, and the United Nations flag. It says that people, when told they are being stupid, often react by indignantly being even more stupid. Sarah and Kate are going camping, and I can't think of any way of respectfully and constructively engaging anyone that would watch them. So, I'm left watching as people continue to make shows like this, and people continue to watch.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why it's OK to hate Lebron

It's always important to ask why. Lots has been made about how bitter fans in Cleveland have been about Lebron's decision to 'take his talents' to Miami. I've heard numerous sports commentators criticize and make fun of Cleveland fans for their reaction. Certainly it seems like an overreaction to the decision of an athlete to leave one team and join another; just a bunch of shallow and bitter people. But, it is important not to leave that initial reaction unchallenged. It is important to ask why someone might react that way. One answer is because that is the way the NBA, Lebron, and Nike and countless other corporations want them to react. If fans didn't feel emotionally connected to their teams and players, then they wouldn't buy overpriced jerseys and tickets or the products advertised during games or at the arena. They wouldn't be prepared to line the streets in the tens of thousands for a victory parade. They wouldn't spend hours in chat rooms talking about their team. They wouldn't listen to themselves being made fun of on sports radio. It really seems pretty shallow and cruel to make fun of people who are only doing what a lot of people wanted them to do.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Understanding Bin Laden

MARINES: It’s God’s Job to forgive bin Laden, it’s our job to arrange the meeting.

Whose job is it to understand bin Laden?

Let me be crystal clear. When I ask this question I am not asking it as if I was a psychotherapist, and I am not operating out of a deep concern for how Osama is feeling or whether he was beaten as a child. I am asking it because I have not eschewed critical thinking and analysis as unimportant, troublesome, more work than they are worth, or the refuge of pansies. I am asking it because I do not believe we are addressing the problem of terrorism until we try to answer this question. I am asking it because I won't feel anything close to comfortable until a many more people are also worrying about this question and its answer.

Many Americans, and to a disturbing extent the last two administrations, have viewed the war on terrorism as if it was a football game and terrorists as if they were the opposing team. Our goal is to beat the terrorists, and their goal is to beat us.

The football analogy doesn’t work, however. In a football game, the teams may have different strategies, but they have the same goal. They want to win the game. Terrorists don’t just want to win the game, and of course the same is true for us. We want regional stability, low gas prices, access to and control over natural resources, markets for our goods, etc. Terrorists have goals too, and it’s not just to destroy the United States. Many of these goals, and the grievances and desires they arise out of, are legitimate. The means being used to achieve may not be legitimate, but the goals and grievances often are. The United States did help bring Saddam to power in Iraq. The United States has had a military presence in Saudi Arabia and beyond. The United States has given tremendous amounts of support to Israel. There has been mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims in the United States. American leaders were unprepared to run Iraq, did allow violence and looting to take place and did fall short when it came to providing basic services. And Iraqis were mistreated. And America’s commitment to rights and freedoms did seem to waver when it came to time to grant them to their enemies, people who might have information about their enemies, and, in the eyes of many, Muslims. American companies have had a lot of influence in the region, and have been involved in activities that anyone, regardless of party affiliation, would have to admit were wrong.

Now, you don’t have to agree with any of the above. It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn't even matter whether these concerns are at all legitimate. What matters is whether people in the region think that way. If they do, they are more likely to turn to terrorism. If they do, then it is our responsibility to find out why and see what changes can be made to stop them from thinking that way. It is in our own best interests to do so.

Now, I know that the soldiers can't always trouble themselves with such concerns. They have a job to do. The reality is, though, that many soldiers do have these concerns. Many soldiers are trying to understand the country they are fighting in and the people they are protecting. We all, soldiers and the rest of us, need to extend that concern to the people we are fighting.

Understanding bin Laden is everyone's job.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Big Government and Burglary

My parents’ house was broken into today, and for me it drove home the ridiculousness of the fixation on big government and onerous regulation. Someone crawled in their kitchen window left open by the cleaning lady, and helped themselves to the big screen television, the laptop, and a few heirlooms. It certainly isn’t the first robbery ever committed, and it won’t be the last. People can’t be trusted not to take things that belong to others. Regardless of the justifications given for and merits of such acts, they will continue to happen as long as we are human. Likewise, when companies are allowed to self-regulate, there will be those who will take shortcuts to profit, and there will be oil spills and financial collapses. When industry is allowed to control worker hours, wages, and workplace conditions, there are sweat shops. What government can do is protect us and our property from greed and short term thinking. The size of government is immaterial to that task. The effectiveness of government is what matters. People will always be people. That’s why we have governments in the first place. People will always people, that’s why we need to be reminded why we have governments. It would be nice if there was a way to remind folks short of breaking into their homes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

God Is Pro Life - More Bumper Sticker Nonesense

"God is Pro Life"

"And the LORD said unto me, Fear him not: for I will deliver him, and all his people, and his land, into thy hand; and thou shalt do unto him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon. So the LORD our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people: and we smote him until none was left to him remaining. And we took all his cities at that time, there was not a city which we took not from them, threescore cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these cities [were] fenced with high walls, gates, and bars; beside unwalled towns a great many. And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city." Deuteronomy 3:2-6.

This is, of course, but one example. I could fill a whole website with quotes from the bible about beating babies, killing sinners, drowning a whole world, etc. All of which were, at the very least, sanctioned by God. So the God of the Bible is many things, and pacifist or monk aren't among them. The God each of us worship is many things, and not the same things. It seems, at best, naive to state without any evidence, discussion, or support that God is anything at all. How could a human being know what God is?

I know that a bumper sticker is a tough place to engage in a theological debate, but maybe Christians should stick to the legless Darwin fish. And maybe people who believe abortion is wrong (probably most of us) should leave behind the platitudes, even the ones based in truth, and engage one another in meaningful dialogue that starts with the understanding that: the Bible is complex, religion is complex, people are complex, black and white statements are rarely accurate, and there are a number of steps that could be taken to lessen the number of people who seek abortions that have nothing to do with constitutional amendments or overturning Roe v. Wade.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Our legal system at work: Ahmed Gailani; Guantanamo Detainees; Civilian Courts; and American Justice

Ahmed Ghailani was found guilty on only one of two hundred and eighty charges. Ghailani was the first of the Guantanamo detainees to be tried. He isn’t the first accused criminal to not be found guilty of some charges. The result in this trial doesn’t prove that civilian courts are the wrong place to try terrorists. It proves that the government still has to prove its case. It proves that people accused of crimes still have to be proven guilty. It proves that, in our system, people are still presumed innocent. It proves that the freedoms we take great pride in, that we claim set us apart, and that we want others to adopt really do apply to everyone regardless of whether it is expedient or popular. The bottom line here is that the appropriateness of civilian trials cannot be predicated on the result of the trial. Otherwise, what you are saying is that civilian trials only work if the accused are always found guilty. That, isn’t just un-American … it’s absurd.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cigarettes in Pictures

There is a new pack of cigarettes coming, which will be half covered with gruesome pictures of cancer stricken lungs and people smoking out of their throats. I don’t have any major objection to this. I suppose it can’t hurt, but I do wonder whether this latest effort misses something. Is there anyone who doesn’t know that smoking can kill you? Is there anyone that hasn’t run across pictures like the ones that will be on the packs of cigarettes? Haven’t we already relegated smokers to sad little clusters fifteen feet from any doorway in any and every type of weather? Doesn’t already cost as much to buy cigarettes as it does to fill up your car with gasoline … maybe more? Is staring at a gruesome picture really going to make a difference? Will it make nicotine less addictive? Will it counter peer pressure? Will it give them more education ad a higher income? 5.7% of adults with a graduate degree smoke. 10.6% of adults with a college degree smoke. 41.3% of adults with a GED smoke. 19.6% of adults at or above the poverty level smoke. 31.5% of adults who live below the poverty level smoke. Maybe we need to think more about what numbers like these mean. Maybe we should be focusing more on encouraging education, and less on glossy pictures. Maybe we should also think more about why people smoke, why people have smoked since before white people came to America. Maybe that might help inform our efforts to decrease the number of smokers. Maybe there are some more questions to be asked and answered.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quick Question on Tax Cuts

Voters were clearly angry. It’s not clear to me, however, that this anger had as its root cause the threatened cessation of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Was there really a ground swell of support for a return to trickle-down economics? I know that everyone wants to make sure that if he or she is suddenly discovered by Ron Howard or Bill Belichick he won’t be victimized by high taxes … but was that really what pushed Democrats out of office? Is there really a mandate for keeping those tax cuts?

"If you can read this thank a teacher. If you can read this in English thank a soldier."

"If you can read this thank a teacher. If you can read this in English thank a soldier."

If you can read this bumper sticker phrase in Russian, Chinese, or Spanish, thank your lucky stars. Actually, if you could read this message in anything other than English you probably aren't an American.

I'm all for thanking everyone, but what do soldiers really have to do with the preservation of the English language? We won our independence from England, and last I checked they spoke something that is enough like English that we wouldn't have noticed much of a difference. Now, I suppose early on there were threats from the French, but realistically they weren't in a position to control the New World. Besides, French is a much prettier language than English. It's a romance language after all. We might be better off speaking French. The French would be better off. If you want to go way back, I suppose there was a threat of Danish or Swedish or some other Nordic language, but I don't know what soldier I would thank for that. Now there is the Civil War ... what do they speak in the South? Was Hitler going to race across the Ocean and impose an even uglier language on us? Was there a real Japanese threat of conquest and colonization? Was Stalin going to flood the United States with Russian speakers after the Soviet Union bested us in battle? Maybe we could have all ended up Arabic speakers, although I'm not sure how.

Reality is such an unromantic downer of a party pooper, but in reality even if we were conquered English would probably survive. Some new words might appear, but by and large conquered peoples in this day and age don't start speaking the language of their conquerors. Conquest doesn't have to mean a change in language.

Personally I'd rather thank Shakespeare for English. Call me crazy. Without Will, I don't think I would want to speak English. And I'd thank my parents and their parents and so on. And I'd throw in a shout out to writers, poets, newspaper publishers, and corporations who have brought the English language to every corner of the globe and made it an indispensable tool for living a normal life in many many places in the world.

And I'd thank teachers ... for this and a lot more.

I'm not against thanking soldiers, anyone who makes sacrifices to help their country and their countrymen deserve our thanks. Of course, these thanks go out to more than just soldiers. Community organizers, politicians, people who work for non-profits, medical researchers, and scientists and inventors have all made equivalent sacrifices.

If we thank soldiers out of guilt because in recent memory we have mistreated them upon their arrival home or because the armed forces are less than representative of our whole society ... we should stop, there are other ways we can deal with all of that.

So, stick to thanking teacher's for English and try recognizing soldiers for who they are, thanking them for what they do, and giving them some help. If you are ambitious, try working to change who becomes a soldier and what it means to be a soldier. You could even try working to recognize contributions of other Americans ... but that might be pushing it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Just Say No ... to innuendo, fallacy, and folks like Jack Kelly

The time has come for us to reject arguments that are laced with innuendo and supported by fallacies, regardless of what the conclusion is or who is making them. We have to focus on addressing one another with arguments that are clear, are supported by real evidence, avoid personal insults, address the issues, and are easy to understand and respond to. We have to demand that politicians, columnists, pundits, mailmen, and baristas give us these kinds of arguments. We have to visit people like Jack Kelly, whoever he is, with ridicule, derision, and censure when they offer us arguments like the one he does under the title of “The many reasons Obama might not seek re-election.” (http://www.jewishworldreview.com/1110/jkelly111510.php3)

I’m not sure there is an actual conclusion in here, but there is plenty of innuendo and fallacy. The idea that Obama might not seek re-election seems to have been invented, because there is no evidence offered up for it. The whole article seems to have been concocted out of thin air. Mr. Kelly calls Biden a buffoon and Obama lazy (“The gossip from supposed insiders is that he doesn’t like the job very much (it involves more work than he’s used to).” He offers no support for this slander either. He alludes several times to the ‘fact’ that voters found all of Obama’s policies repugnant, but offers no support for that generalization. He says he is being compared to Richard Nixon, but doesn’t say how. He says working class whites won’t vote for Obama, but doesn’t offer any support for that contention or any details at all. Most importantly, he seems to overlook the fact that Obama isn’t the first president to watch his party lose partial (or total) control over Congress (Reagan and Clinton are in this group). He makes the cardinal mistake of assuming that the political landscape will remain unchanged over the next two years, which given the last two years seems a little na├»ve.

The bottom line is that: Jack Kelly isn’t interested in solving a problem; Jack Kelly is interested in ridiculing democrats; and thus, we (people who like logic and reason) shouldn’t be interested in Jack Kelly except to force him out of publication.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quote and Counter-Quote

"There Was Never a Good War or a Bad Peace" - Benjamin Franklin

My response ... "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." - Benjamin Franklin.

Wait, that's the wrong quote, here are the right ones ... "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!" & "Even peace may be purchased at too high a price."

Quotes can be dangerous, because whoever it is you are quoting probably said something else. And it's possible, as in this case, that the person may have even acted in a way that was contrary to the words you are quoting. Benjamin Franklin tried to find a peaceful resolution to the problems between the colonies and England, but when that didn't work he supported the war effort.

And even if he had said nothing contrary, and acted in every way consistently with this statement, the bumper sticker reprinting it would still be flawed. First of all, Any statement that pertains to human beings and uses words like always or never is ... usually ... false. There is ... usually ... an exception for every rule. And context (what, when, where, etc.) is almost always important in determining human outcomes.

Second, the idea that there can't be a bad peace is so obviously silly that there isn't much to say about it, as long as peace means the absence of conflict. If you include things like fairness, equality, etc. in peace, than the statement might be right but you have an overly broad definition of peace. If you don't include these things, then imagine yourself standing next to Neville Chamberlin as he says "My good friends, this is the second time there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Now I recommend you go home, and sleep quietly in your beds." Or imagine yourself in a marriage shorn of love, affection, and empathy. Now, what was that about there not being a bad peace?

Third, while war always has costs, sometimes it is necessary and the result hard to describe as bad. Intervention in Bosnia might be an example. The liberation of concentration camps comes to mind. And, back to Benjamin Franklin, was the American Revolution a bad war?

So, if you want to put a Benjamin Franklin quote on a bumper sticker, this may not be the best choice. If you don't drink beer, here is another suggestion:

"Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man." - Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

Joe Biden said today that veterans are the “spine of our nation.” Doug Gottlieb, guest hosting an ESPN morning show, said that it was because of soldiers that we can sleep well at night. Many talked of thanking soldiers for all that they do. Most of what was said was quite unremarkable. It is what wasn’t said that interests me.

I heard nothing said about who is being thanked, and who isn’t. I know the Heritage Foundation has said that there is no demographic difference between military recruits and the general population, but the Heritage Foundation is not exactly impartial. Plus, their conclusions were extrapolated from data based on zip code, which isn’t that useful. I want to know how many of the people doing the thanking are thanking soldiers for doing a job they had no interest in doing. I want to if the people being thanked are truly representative of those doing the thanking. I also would like to hear more about why people join the military, and more in the way of a discussion of the best ways to choose soldiers.

I heard very little curiosity regarding soldier’s experiences, particularly soldiers’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten years. It almost seems as if most of us would like to thank them, and leave it at that. Some of us would like to bring them home, and leave it at that. We want to leave it at thank you. We don’t want to understand them or their experiences. Maybe we can’t, but we’re not very interested in even trying.

I seldom hear thanks being given to the others who work to keep our democracy strong, people like teachers, social workers, community organizers, foster-parents … lawyers. To be honest, I don’t hear enough thanks at the grocery store check out, but that’s not where I want to go here. The deployment of troops is not all that has made America. For that matter, the contribution of many soldiers only started during their service. It may not be a good thing to have too much acknowledgement of the force and violence side of democracy. It may help to dictate a certain kind of action and involvement in the future.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be thankful for veterans. It is just to say that we should understand more about who we thank and who we don’t, why we thank them, and what we are thanking them for.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"What Part of Thou Shalt Not Kill Don't You Understand?"

"What Part of Thou Shalt Not Kill Don't You Understand?"

More of it than anyone who would ever put this bumper sticker on their car as a protest against abortion does. I understand it well enough to know that it is a rule that no generation of human beings will ever be able to follow, and no critical thinker would ever want to be enforced.

The first limiting factor is pretty obvious. This is a statement that few mean to apply to all living things, and certainly not to the Cows, Chickens, Pigs, Sheep, Fish, and Bison that go into Pot Roast, Bacon, Burgers, Tacos, and Aspic.

Next, what about people killed in self defense?

What about war?

The death penalty?

The use of condoms?

I think it is clear that the fetus is alive. But does that mean that there can be no abortions? Choices have always been made that determine life and death. They're going to keep on being made. This is one of them. If you don't like abortion, work to lessen the number of people who seek them by handing out condoms, providing more sex ed, improving the quality of a of public school education, or changing socio-economic realities. If you are arguing against abortion, come up with better arguments. They are possible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Huh?

The Republicans, newly in power in the House, are clamoring to repeal 'Obamacare.' Many ordinary Americans are also clamoring for it's repeal. The health care reform bill is the object of much fear and anger. It has truly caused an uproar. What it hasn't caused is much in the way of alternatives. People are falling all over themselves to call for its repeal, but no one is talking about what their approach would be. This is just a continuation of the pattern that was laid down during debate over the bill. Opponents focused on scaring people into opposing it, rather than engaging the bills proponents with their own ideas and solutions, or (gasp) some hint of the spirit of collaboration. You'd think that Republicans were fighting to maintain the status quo. You wouldn't think that would be a popular position. You wouldn't think very many people are happy with the status quo. You wouldn't think ... and maybe that's the problem.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Colin Cowherd and What's Wrong With Politics

Colin Cowherd isn't a politician, but he could be. He's got one part down pat. He lives in a black and white world.

Colin Cowherd, if you have the fortune of not knowing, is a sports radio and television personality. He has a radio show and a television show on ESPN. Last week he made some waves for slamming rookie point guard John Wall for dancing before a game. His comments were ridiculous, baseless, and from out of left field. I have read some good criticisms of his tirade, like this one: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/dcsportsbog/2010/11/colin_cowherd_rants_on_john_wa.html.

I am not interested in critiquing Cowherd's comments. I am only interested in commenting on his critique. The essence of his critique of John Wall is he is like Stephon Marbury rather than Magic Johnson (who by the way recently did the same dance). Cowherd's whole tirade assumed that there are really only two possibilities for point guards. They either end up being Magic Johnson or Stephon Marbury.

The world, of course, is not really this black and white. There are a lot of Derek Fishers, Ron Harpers, and Jason Williams out there. There is also more than one interpretation of John Wall's dance. John Wall himself can not be summed up by a dance and a misread box score. The world is a nuanced and complex place.

Colin Cowherd has made a career of reducing the world to extremes. Either Boise State is getting jobbed by the system or Auburn is. It can't possibley be both. If someone disagrees with him, it is because he is a loser in every other facet of his life. He often talks of the world as a place populated by people who get it and people who don't; people who are successes and those who will never amount to anything and are the butt of jokes at their office watercooler. Colin Cowherd's ignorance is of very little importance, as long as he sticks to sports. If he choses to join some of his likeminded brethren in politics, then he would become more important, in a negative way.

There is still plenty to worry about as it is, however, because there are plenty of folks who see the world in black and white and are involved in politics. These are the folks who call people socialists if they disagree with them on health care. These are the people who pledge never to raise taxes. These are the folks who want to ban all abortions without giving a single thought to why people get abortions. These are the people who talk of an axis of evil, and of Muslims as if they are all a part of it. These are the folks who call America a Christian nation. These are the people who take these simplistic black and white pictures of the world, and sell them to the American public along with a portion of hate and a heaping of fear.

The bottom line is that John Wall won't be either Magic Johnson or Stephon Marbury. He will be John Wall. If we care to know who that is, we will have to do more than watch him dance and read a few lines from a box score. Similarly, in order to understand health care we will have to know more than our own party affiliation and how to type or say "obamacare." The world is not in black and white, and if we see it that way we are missing something.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What they should have done

I think Democrats running for Senate and House seats should have owned the last two years of decisions. They should have boldly laid claim to the programs. Admitted what hasn't worked, and stressed that these are long term efforts. They needed to do more than just blame Republicans for not coming to the table to gelp craft solutions, although that was important. They needed to say here is what we did, here is why we did it, here is what we expect to do now, here is what we expect to be the result, and if you don't like it then don't vote for me ... but oh by the way, before you vote for the other guy you ought to ask what thier plan is. I think it would be so refreshing to have a politician do this, that it just might work.

Friday, November 5, 2010

High Speed Rail: Change That Should Matter

Several new Republican governors are already preparing to kill nascent high speed rail projects in their states. It was actually a campaign promise. These projects are funded by stimulus dollars, and are part of a high profile effort by the Obama Administration to improve rail transportation across the country. If you’ve ridden on Amtrack and ridden trains in Europe or Japan, you know there is a lot of room for improvement. Trains can also play an important role in a greener energy and transportation systems. There are good reasons to support these programs. I’m not as familiar with the good reasons to oppose them. Yes, there are other projects that could be funded. But killing Obama’s program and trying to sabotage the Administration’s attempts at a recovery that they could lay claim to would seem to be the driving reasons behind opposing high speed rail projects. I would like to see a debate on the merits of these programs, but I’m not expecting one. The Republicans aren’t interested in any kind of substantive debate and the Democrats aren’t interested in really forcing the issue as opposed to just whining about the situation. A debate on this issue, to borrow the Democrat’s slogan, would be “change that matters.” I don’t think we’re going to get change that matters.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sparky Anderson and Politics

I had a physical reaction when I learned that Sparky Anderson had passed away. I had little goose bumps all over my body and was a little short of breath. The shortness of breath might have been my asthma ... but it wasn't asthma that made me feel sad. It also wasn't logic, which reveals one big problem we have with politics in this or any other country. It is not natural for humans to be logical. Baseball is my least favorite sport. I follow it because I follow all sports, but I would rather watch marbles (which I have actually watched on ESPN before ... sad, but true). I'm from Flint, MI, but I've been to one Tigers game my whole life. I don't watch games on television either. I don't know George (Sparky) on a first name basis, or any basis. He doesn't remind me of my dad or granddad. There is no logical reason I should be especially touched, but I am. Partly because of manipulation by sports writers and partly because humans are illogical. That is the problem we have with politics too. It's all about illogical humans and their manipulation. Today it's all about Sparky, and as aware of my manipulation as I am, I really feel that's the way it should be. Which is the problem.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We Need a Change

We need a movement. We need a party. We need to make a change. Yes we do, but can we?

First of all, who are we? Well, to start with we are critical thinkers. We value logic. We are the people who aren’t swayed by vague appeals to fight big government and protect the Constitution. We know there is no need to take back the country. We know we can, but we’re not sure what we’re saying yes to. We would love to pick up a sign and join a rally, but the only one any of us can find that is worth joining is led by a comedian. Even that one doesn’t appeal to all of us, only the sarcastic liberals. We are more than just sarcastic liberals. We have been labeled all kinds of things, including conservative, Republican, independent, and socialist. We are united mostly by our desire to solve problems and our willingness to compromise.

Second, what needs to be changed? This question is a tougher one to answer. We have a sense that some of what frustrates us has always been that way. We also, however, have a sense that it doesn’t need to keep being that way. We also know that some of the problems we face are new.

One thing that has to be changed is the current polarized nastiness which prevails among the people and their elected representatives. There needs to be a lot less emphasis on hate. Also, most of us aren’t in high school anymore, so we shouldn’t be acting as if we are part of a competition for prom queen and everyone is out to steal our boyfriend. There are real problems to be solved. We need to put less emphasis on personal lives and putdowns, and more emphasis on the issues and working to solve them. We need less competition and more collaboration.

Another thing that needs to be changed is the level of interest/education among the electorate. This is particularly true in the age of the internet, where information comes to and goes out from the electorate with greater ease than ever before. The success of the Tea Party proves has brought this problem into full view. We need more educated consumers of politics, people who understand that taxes need to be raised once in a while and that government has a role to play in our lives.

Third, how do we make a change? This is the toughest question of all. In general, we will make a change by coming together, if not in a party than in a movement. This leads to the bigger question, how do we come together? How do we come together when we don’t agree on all the issues? The first step would be to agree on the process we need to use in order to reach decisions. Process is critically important. Maybe we also need to lay out some general principles we all could agree on. Some possibilities might be efficient government, equal treatment of all religions, and the prioritizing of freedom of speech.

The need is clear, but the rest is not. The need is clear enough though, that we need to start working on the rest. We need to start working on the rest right away.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Taxes: Not the Work of the Devil

Taxes aren't evil. You know all those things you want: nice roads, good schools, beautiful parks, a safety net in troubled times, protection from terrorism, protections for wildlife ... Those things cost money. Most people say they want those things, and don't want to pay taxes. It just doesn't work that way. And any politician who pledges to never raise taxes is stupid, or not telling the truth, or more interested in being elected than in solving problems. And if you fall for it, then you get what you deserve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

You get what you get and you don't throw a fit

We're about to do it to ourselves again. We want politicians to be above politics. We don't want them to play partisan games. We want them to put the interests of the country before their own interest in being reelected. When they do these things, we vote them out of office. If they try to really solve problems, which often requires taking on challenges that won't be met within an election cycle, they run the risk of losing their jobs. We say we want leaders who are interested in something more than their own job, but we give them no one any incentive to be that kind of leader. This year, we are on the verge of rewarding a failure to engage in dialogue, compromise, and real problem solving. I don't think the Democrats have done a stupendous job solving problems, nor have all Democrats been above playing politics rather than trying to solve problems, but generally they have done a better job than Republicans, who are in danger of becoming the party of vague innuendo. If we want better leadership, we need to ask for it and we need to accept it and reward it when it is given to us. Until that happens, we shouldn't complain.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Consumer Guide to Politics - Abridged Edition



A Consumer’s Guide to Politics (Abridged Edition)

Introduction
Most Americans are not informed consumers of politics and thus are at the mercy of the people who are trying to ‘sell’ politics. Few of us demand clear explanations, convincing evidence, or cooperation. Even fewer of us see ourselves as participants. The people who are ‘selling’ politics aren’t forced to present arguments based in reason and logic, so they don’t. Instead they appeal to fear, anger, and ignorance. The result is that what we ‘buy’ isn’t worth much. If this situation is going to change, the consumers of politics are going to have to be informed. Consumers are going to have to start asking questions. What follows is meant to help consumers ask questions. What follows is a consumer’s guide to politics. It is similar to the ones that help people make every other decision imaginable, from choosing a college to choosing a stereo. It’s just a list of questions someone could ask when they find themselves face to face with a big election decision, an editorial in the local paper, a college student going door to door with a petition, or a discussion at Church about abortion. It’s a list of questions and a helping of common sense. That’s it. No footnotes. No illustrations. No soundtrack. Although pictures and music would have been great, common sense and a smidgeon of critical thinking is all anybody needs to be an informed consumer of politics. It’s really all we need to improve the quality of the politics we are ‘buying.’ We just need more people to ask the right questions before they ‘buy,’ whether the purchase comes from CNN or the UPS guy.  

The List
When do you use this list? You can use it when you hear a speech or read a newspaper article pertaining to anything from the War in Afghanistan to negotiations on teachers’ contracts. You can whip it out during or after a conversation with a colleague at work about immigration law in Arizona or the Tea Party Movement. You can pull it out before you head to the polls. You can reference it when you first hear about a new crisis. You can use it for kindling if you want. Whatever you choose to use it for, here it is:

1. Can I figure this out?
2. Once I figure it out, am I done?
3. What is important to me?
4. How do I feel about this and why?
5. Do I need to be nasty?
6. Who am I listening to?
7. What does “______” mean?
8. Where is the proof?
9. What does the issue look like in color?
10. What is the other side of this issue?
11. What are the possible short and long term implications?

1. Can I figure this out?
You only need to ask this question once. Regardless of who you are, the answer is yes. You can figure it out. Didn’t go to Harvard? Doesn’t matter. Didn’t go to college? So what. Haven’t ever left your state? I don’t care. You can figure it out. If you don’t figure it out, you’ve chosen not to figure it out.

Figuring it out doesn’t mean knowing enough to construct your own political system. It doesn’t mean knowing enough to write a book. Think about what you knew before you chose you last flat screen television or new car. Was it enough to build a car or a television? Was it enough to write a book? I doubt it, but I don’t doubt that you knew more about that television than you need to know in order to ‘figure out’ a political issue. Figuring it out doesn’t mean being able to create your own democracy. You just need to know enough to ask a few basic questions, and be able to find and make some sense of the answers.

How does one figure it out? The answer is Google and the rest of the questions on the list.

2. Once I figure it out, am I done?
The answer to this question will never change, but you should ask it more than once. The answer will always be no. It sucks, but it’s true. It sucks, but it’s important.

Let’s say you read an article advocating more offshore oil drilling. Maybe you even read it pretty carefully, and you might even Google the topic and spend a few minutes reading a couple of other articles. You might conclude that offshore drilling is a good idea. Later, maybe you come across an argument you hadn’t considered, or maybe there is a huge oil spill endangering animals and hurting the economy of a number of states (I know it’s a crazy idea …). You could decide to cling to your position regardless of what happens or what you find out, and work very hard to come up with reasons why you are right. You could, but you wouldn’t be an informed consumer of politics.

There are three issues here. First of all, things change. That’s life. Second of all, we are all busy people coming up with opinions and positions on less than full information. No one has time to be an expert on every issue. This means that we may run across additional information after we think we have come up with a position. The additional information might undermine our position. If it happens, we shouldn’t be surprised and we shouldn’t pretend that it hasn’t happened. Third, the goal here isn’t to be right, it’s to fix problems. Don’t think of politics as a place of non-stop competition. Think of it as an opportunity for never ending collaboration.

So, unfortunately, you don’t ever figure it out completely. No one does. No one can. You figure it out for the moment the best you can, and then you stay open to changing your mind.

3) What is important to me?
You have to ask this question more than once, but not every time you consider a new issue or speech or argument. You have to ask it though. No issue implicates only one principle. And issues overlap with other issues.

Abortion is about life, privacy, control over one’s person, women’s rights, poverty, and sex, among other things. It is easy to imagine someone feeling strongly about the protection of life and about women’s rights, and thus feeling conflicted on the issue of abortion. You may oppose wars but believe in a responsibility to fix your messes, and if so our current involvement in Afghanistan would pull you in opposite directions. An intelligent position on the war in Afghanistan or abortion will require you to have thought about what is important to you.

The bottom line here is simple. Every so often, take a moment to really think about what is important to you. Make a list. Give it a little thought, at least as much thought as you would a grocery list.

For what it’s worth, my list would look something like this:
1) tolerance/respect for others beliefs/practices/values/etc.
2) Freedom from oppression
3) Freedom of expression
4) Economic rights (like the right to a living wage)
5) Efficient (not small or large) government
6) Safety for self/family
7) Making sure we don’t destroy our planet
8) Protecting life

4) How do I feel about this and why?
When you hear a news story, a political commercial, or even an argument from a friend on a political issue, you should ask this question immediately. When you watch a news story on the President’s last vacation, how do you feel? Are you angry? If so, why are you angry? Every time I read an article that is critical of President Obama, my first reaction is to get angry and be defensive. I voted for Obama, and I felt like his election was a historic moment for this country. I want him to succeed. This is why I don’t like to see him criticized. This isn’t, however, a logical reaction. I risk the dumb ass label if I don’t stop and ask how I feel about an article that is critical of Obama, why I feel that way, and whether my reasons are legitimate.


5) Do I need to be nasty?This one only has a single answer too. No, you don’t need to be nasty, though it is certainly possible. It can be pretty satisfying too. Unfortunately, it gets in the way of solving problems.

Glen Beck might be a buffoon. Al Sharpton might also be a horse’s ass. They might both be racists too. Sarah Palin might be learning disabled. Nancy Pelosi might be the queen bitch. So what? Does any of this get us any closer to solving a single real problem? If true, would any of it necessarily cancel out everything the buffoons and bitches ever did or said?

The person who reads (or doesn’t read) a news piece on line and then posts a comment that you disagree with probably isn’t an idiot, a moron, and/or a faggot. But even if they were, how does any of that form a basis for a real discussion? How does that accomplish anything?

Save the put-downs for the playground. If you can’t, then stick to sports radio or tabloid television or whatever. Political discourse should not sound like your favorite weekly sports radio show. This is important stuff that merits serious and respectful discussion.

6) Who am I listening to?
You need to know who you are listening to, reading, and watching. If you are getting your information from Glen Beck or Rachael Maddow, you should be aware that both are advocating a position rather than presenting unbiased information. You need to know the difference between Fox News, CNN, PBS, and the BBC. People and organizations have agendas, and you should know something about what those agendas are before you accept their logic on political issues.

Would you collect ten random strangers, ask them where you should go for summer vacation, have them write down the answers and place them in a paper bag, select one from the bag, and then hurry home to book your airplane tickets? Would you have them each select a new outfit for work for you, and then go with the selection of the person who can come closest to guessing the number between one and ten that you are thinking about? What about if the question was what school your kid should go to? No. Well, then why is it OK to do when deciding who to vote for President or whether or not we should be at war?

If you were buying a computer, would you only seek advice from someone who works for Apple? Would you only seek advice on oil heat from the representative of your local oil company? Would you accept the opinion of a Cowboy fan on the Eagles chances to win the Super Bowl? Would you consult only a drug dealer before deciding whether or not Marijuana should be legalized? If you answer no to any of these questions, or the dozens of others you can easily imagine, then why would you accept Rush Limbaugh’s viewpoint on whether a mosque should be placed near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York without seeking out other opinions?

The bottom line is that you should know who is making an argument and what biases they might have. 

7) What does “______” mean?
Before you disagree or agree with an argument, you should be sure you know what all the words in the argument mean. It’s not enough to know just the dictionary definition either. You need to know something about what the author of the argument means by that word. You really shouldn’t get too hot under the collar about something if you don’t know what it is you’re getting hot under the collar about.

If you are going to get stirred up against big government by the speeches at a Tea Party gathering, you ought to know what the speakers mean by big government. You ought to know what you mean by big government. If you are willing to risk arrest to protest for peace, I hope you have an idea of what peace is. If you think Obama is a socialist, it would be good to know what a socialist is. If you think he is a fascist, it would be good to know what a fascist is. Before you laugh and say that everyone knows what these things are, take a moment and try defining one of them. You can’t use peace in a definition of peace or big in a definition of big government. Peaceful and bigger are off limits too.

Something else you ought to know is that the author of an article accusing someone of being a socialist might mean nothing more than whatever it takes to get you to be frightened enough or angry enough to join them in disagreeing with/fighting against the ‘socialist.’ Of course, if you take the time to figure out what a socialist is for yourself, it won’t matter.


8) Where is the proof?
If someone grabs you by the shoulder and says, building a mosque near the old site of the World Trade Centers is un-American, you have not been presented with an argument. An argument requires a conclusion along with premises that support it. An argument requires evidence.

It is one thing to say that encouraging abstinence is an effective approach to preventing teen pregnancy and abortion. It is easy to say it. It isn’t so easy to prove it. You don’t want to go easy on people who are trying to get you to believe something. You want to be hard on them. You want to make them prove it.

If someone fails to fully explain their reasoning, makes an appeal to your fear or anger, and/or tries to convince you to go along with them for some reason unconnected with the issue … then they don’t think you are smart enough or they don’t want you to think you are smart enough. They think you are a dumb ass. They want you to be a dumb ass. They don’t want to have to explain themselves. They want you to just accept their judgment on health care or oil spills or whatever. They hope you will live up to their judgment about your worth, or lack thereof. I hope they are disappointed. I want you to be able to disappoint them.

9) What does the issue look like in color?
In 2010 you don’t have to specify that you own a color television. We’re on to high definition, 3 D, and who knows what else that I can’t afford. When it comes to issues of national and international importance, however, we haven’t come so far. There is an axis of “evil.” Any increased government involvement in health care is socialized medicine. Abortion is wrong, because it’s murder. People shouldn’t eat animals, or ever use them to test products that could save human lives. In politics, people are still willing to accept presentations in black and white. Politics, however, really isn’t much different than television. The world portrayed by both is in color. So, any time you are presented with an argument framed in black and white (like Islam is evil or America is always right) you should reject it, and/or you should find out for yourself what the issue looks like in color.


10) What is the other side of this issue?
Do you believe that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion? I do. I don’t, however, think you are a dumb ass if you don’t agree with me. I also don’t think you’re evil, wrong, have nothing to say I could learn from, or have nothing to offer to help address the issue. In fact, there is a lot of common ground between people who sit on opposite sides of any issue, even abortion. No one is in favor of abortions. Most of us could agree that there are steps that could be taken to reduce the number of people who would choose to have an abortion. If we really thought about it and asked a few hard questions, many of us would agree to take those steps, even if it wouldn’t be our ideal approach. Fundamentally, no one’s ideal approach to anything is really feasible. Plus, abortion is not an easy issue. Most issues aren’t. Do you know of a clearly superior way to respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions? What about the right response to China’s industrial growth and the pollution that comes with it? Do you know how to stop the creation of new terrorists? Do you know how to keep illegal immigrants out or how to deal with those that are here? Do you even agree that these are the right questions? Only an idiot would think that these are easy issues. Only an idiot would call someone a an idiot for disagreeing with them on these kinds of issues, and then cling defensively to the correctness of their own positions. Only an idiot would refuse to ask, or answer, questions about or from the other side on these issues.

11) What are the possible short and long term implications?
If you decide not to go out to the bar with your buddies this Friday night something will happen that wouldn’t have happened had you gone to the bar. You might be hit by a train. You might watch a real life crime drama. You might miss meeting the love of your life. You might miss out on a hangover. It might only mean less time spent picking up puke, but something will be different.

Every decision has an impact and carries with it implications. The burning of a Quran or the drawing of a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad might result in deaths in the short term … and hard feelings, intractable conflict, and more deaths in the future. Torturing suspected terrorists by American authorities might hurt American diplomacy for decades and actually increase the threat of terrorism. Creating strong Unions might hurt corporations’ ability to respond to foreign competition.

If you are going to weigh in on decisions, whether by voting or voicing your opinion in another way, you should be aware of some of the possible implications of your chosen position. If you don’t want to be bothered with that, then don’t weigh in. If you can’t be bothered to ask these questions, then don’t be bothered with any of it. Don’t be a consumer of politics. Leave it to those of us who do care to take a little time to ask these questions.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Correspondence from Patrick Murphy

Imagine if you will that you have a supervisor that hardly talks to you. He isn’t your direct supervisor, so there isn’t a need, but the opportunity arises from time to time and you don’t run away, still it never happens. It never happens, until the company announces that since times are hard there aren’t as many bonuses for executives, so only those with a certain approval rating among employees will be eligible to receive bonuses. Immediately he begins not only talking with you, but buying you muffins once a week and sending you encouraging texts. Certainly you will enjoy the muffins, and maybe even the texts, although they are a little creepy, but you won’t see the gestures the same way as you would have had you been chatting with him over a blueberry muffin since you started working with him. It’s just common sense. Which is why I’m not sure why my Congressman, Patrick Murphy, has sent me five or six letters on official Congress letterhead over the last four or five weeks. Now don’t get me wrong, I love receiving official mail from Congress as much as the next guy, and the letters were full of great stuff, but is soured a bit by the fact that they were the first five letters I’d received since he was elected in 2006. It’s a great idea to check in with constituents once in a while, but not as great an idea if you do it only before an incredibly close election when incumbent Democrats are about as secure as passenger pigeons at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. I don’t mind having taxpayer money spent on reaching out to constituents, but I’d rather not have it seem quite so crass and self serving. I’m still voting for him, because he’s the best candidate, but I’m a little disappointed to see such a glaring absence of common sense and respect for constituents.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Consumer’s Guide to Politics OR How Not to Act Like a Dumb Ass



A Consumer’s Guide to Politics OR How Not to Act Like a Dumb Ass

Preface
Americans need to stop acting like dumb asses and start using common sense when it comes to politics. I’d apologize for the crass language, but this isn’t a love letter. I’d apologize for appealing to common sense, but this isn’t a research paper. In this country we have a real problem. Many of us are acting like dumb asses when it comes to politics, all of us are being treated like dumb asses, and decisions are being made out of fear, anger, and ignorance. Most of us are not informed consumers of politics and thus are at the mercy of the people who are trying to ‘sell’ politics to us. Few of us demand clear explanations, convincing evidence, or cooperation. Many of us have accepted that we are fans rather than participants. All of us, as a result, are getting what most of us are asking for. All of us need to find a way to help ourselves out of this predicament. Love letters and research projects aren’t going to cut it. We need a consumer’s guide to politics similar to the guides we have to help people make every other decision imaginable, from choosing a college to choosing a stereo. We might need more, but a consumer’s guide to politics is a good, and simple, place to start. It’s just a list of questions someone could ask when they find themselves face to face with a big election decision, an editorial in the local paper, a college student going door to door with a petition, or a discussion at Church about abortion. It’s a list of questions and a helping of common sense. That’s it. No footnotes. No illustrations. No soundtrack. Although pictures and music would have been great, common sense and a smidgeon of critical thinking is all anybody needs to understand politics well enough to avoid acting, and more importantly being treated, like a dumb ass.

If you want to be an informed consumer of politics, ask these questions. If you know someone who needs help becoming an informed consumer of politics, give them these questions.

Introduction

The Bottom line
You are acting like a dumb ass if you take a position on an issue without asking any serious questions. If you don’t ask the kind of questions a person asks when he or she wants to learn something, then you are acting like a dumb ass. You may be too busy. You may be comfortable taking someone else’s word for it. You may be subconsciously making reality fit into an understanding of the world you are comfortable with. You may not know that you can ask questions and form your own opinion.

Whatever the reason, too many people who vote or weigh in on political issues are too unlikely to seek to learn anything new or unexpected. Because we are human beings, some of us take advantage of this fact. These folks count on there being a lot of people who won’t ask questions; who can be motivated to take a side on an issue by fear, anger, nostalgia, or apathy; and who won’t demand an argument that would stand up to reason and logic. They don’t need to burden themselves with compromise, collegiality, or stability. Everyone else gets screwed.
The key to avoiding getting screwed is to get people to stop acting like dumb asses and to start asking questions. Any questions at all would be a good start, and the right questions would be phenomenal. Who is telling me I should think this way? Who profits from having me think this way? What is their motivation? What are they really saying? Why do others disagree? If you ask the right questions, we’ll all get the right answers.

What is a dumb ass?
The first thing to understand about acting like a dumb ass is that you aren’t a dumb ass, you just act like one and you don’t even do that all the time. You might believe peace is the only choice, and conflict among nations is never a solution. That doesn’t, however, have to mean that you act like a dumb ass when it comes to abortion or health care. It also doesn’t mean you forgot your wife’s birthday, or yelled at the referee of your six year old daughter’s soccer game. There may well be dumb ass overlap, but it is far from guaranteed.

Second, this is not an exclusive club. Sometimes, it’s me. Sometimes it’s you. It could be everybody and anybody from Obama to your mama. Obama trusted BP to fix its oil spill and Congress to deal expediently, compassionately, and intelligently with health care. Your mama might have trusted that her new friend wouldn’t take advantage of an older widow. You might have trusted yourself and run the wrong way with the football and scored a touchdown for the other team.

Third, acting like a dumb ass doesn’t make you unlovable. People still love, respect, and even want to hang out with people who sometimes act like dumb asses. After all, every single person on the planet has.

Fourth, you need to understand that you can stop acting like a dumb ass. It is not a permanent or terminal condition. There is no need for dumb ass to be written on your grave.

Fifth, acting like a dumb ass is not the same as being uneducated. It doesn’t take an Ivy League degree to be able to act like a dumb ass. In some circumstances, though, it might help.

Sixth, this isn’t limited to just one political party. Your garden variety peace rally is as likely to be full of people acting like dumb asses as a Tea Party gathering. It isn’t as much about what you think as it is about how and why you think what you think.

Lastly, and most importantly, having acted like a dumb ass is not anything to be ashamed of, unless you aren’t willing to own up to it and do something about it. It is far worse to know that people around us are acting like dumb assess and let them keep on acting like dumb assess, a sin many of us have been guilty of for far too long. And the true sin is to take advantage of this situation to pursue a political agenda. The dumb ass is not the one to blame or ridicule. Dumb ass really isn’t the worst label to wear, which is good because we have all worn it. A friend who does something stupid is often a dumb ass: “dude, you’re a dumb ass … what were you thinking?” Friends often point out to one another when they are behaving like dumb asses. In fact, it may be a friend’s responsibility to do so. This list of questions is motivated by a similar responsibility that we as Americans have to our fellow Americans.

What is politics?
I don’t care that you made an insensitive comment about May-December romances to your fifty year old friend who is dating a 30 year old woman. I am, however, concerned if you told your fifty year old friend that he shouldn’t be dating a 30 year old man because their relationship represents a threat to American family values. I am concerned, because politics and dumb asses is a kind of very dangerous anti Reeses Peanut Butter Cup scenario. Before I explain why, I need to define what I mean by politics.

When most of us in this country think about politics we are much too focused on politicians, political parties, and rivalry. Politics in America is presented as if it is a football game, or a number of football games. Only a few of us think we are playing the game. Some (enough) of these few either see themselves as combatants engaged in a winner takes all contest, or at least they present themselves that way to the rest of us.

The rest of us are seen, and see ourselves, as (at most) fans, at least when we remove ourselves from our intramural teams (aka local politics) and turn our attention to the major leagues (state or national politics). Most obvious are the rabid and fanatical ones, in the mold of the stereotypical soccer hooligan or Eagles fan. These fans frequent real or virtual pep rallies, and are frequently worked up into a rage. Anyone who is on the other team, or roots for the other team, is the enemy. Everything they like must be hated. If someone wears the wrong jersey into the porta potty, he or she, should be pushed over. After all, the enemy isn’t like us. Their values are out of whack. They want to kick our asses and put us into work camps. It’s really very simple, very black and white. They are evil and we are good. If we score, it hurts them. If they score, it hurts us. If they win, we lose. It’s a competition. There is little room for compromise. Any of us can drawn in by the simplicity of it. Why wouldn’t we, we’re just fans after all. We are just fans, and dumb asses, something a lot of important people count on.

The truth is that politics is nothing like a football game. There are no fans. We are all players. We are all contributors. We aren’t all, however, engaging in a competition. And all of us are doing more than competing. We, the ordinary people, are involved in politics all the time and in a lot of important ways. There is voting. There are lots of offices people run for, and even the most local of positions influence national politics in some way. People attend rallies, marches, and vigils all the time. People go door to door distributing pamphlets. Others write letters (or e-mails if you are under sixty three) to the editor, or your elected representative, or your favorite documentary filmmaker, or even your favorite actor or musician. Lots of folks donate money to political parties, political candidates, or special interest organizations. Some are even patient enough to complete a survey on a political issue. A lot of folks, unfortunately, comment on on-line news stories. Some of us even talk to our neighbors, the mailman, or a spouse about politics. And many of us, although not nearly enough of us, ask questions. Each one of these examples, and many more besides, are politics and great opportunities for you to not act like a dumb ass.

What happens when dumb asses meet politics?
What happens when people acting like dumb asses meet politics is the Birther Movement. What happens is the internment of Japanese Americans. What happens is talk of death panels and amending the Fourteenth Amendment to restrict citizenship. What happens is that an absurdly high percentage of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. What happens is people turn the placement of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Centers into a debate on the merits of Islam. Essentially, when people make decisions like dumb asses they allow politicians to gain support for themselves and their initiatives by preying upon fear and anger and referencing boogey men like “big government,” “family values,” “sweatshops,” “outsourcing,” higher taxes,” “evil,” “socialism,” or “radical Islam.” There is no need to meet people’s needs or to attack problems with the idea of solving them. The Republican Party’s response to Obama’s health care initiative wasn’t to critique the plan’s ability to improve health care in America or to counter with detailed proposals and suggestions, but rather to label it as socialist and connect it to death panels and the spread of homosexuality. What this did was to deprive the American people of a real debate on health care, and weaken the final product. The people to blame are not the leaders of the Republican party, however, but everyone who responded to these tactics … and everyone who made fun of the ‘ignorant’ people that really believed that Obama wanted to execute old people. The way to deal with someone who acts like a dumb ass is not to ridicule him but to help him see what is really happening. After all, we’ve all been there ourselves, and when we were there we would have appreciated help rather than ridicule. We would have wanted someone to help us figure it out for ourselves.

What can we do about it?
The ultimate solution will involve a political system based on compromise, critical thinking, and transparency. Politics is, or at least should be, a process by which people make collective decisions. The first step towards this pie in the sky goal is to reduce the number of people acting like dumb assess by encouraging people to ask more questions. We need fewer fans and more informed participants. We need informed consumers. What follows is a first step towards that goal. What follows is a list of questions that people can ask before they buy ‘any’ political argument, whether it comes from CNN or the UPS guy.  

The List

When do you use this list? You can use it when you hear a speech or read a newspaper article pertaining to anything from the War in Afghanistan to negotiations on teachers’ contracts. You can whip it out during or after a conversation with a colleague at work about immigration law in Arizona or the Tea Party Movement. You can pull it out before you head to the polls. You can reference it when you first hear about a new crisis. You can use it for kindling if you want. Whatever you choose to use it for, here it is:

1. Can I figure this out?
2. Once I figure it out, am I done?
3. What is important to me?
4. How do I feel about this and why?
5. Do I need to be nasty?
6. Who am I listening to?
7. What does “______” mean?
8. Where is the proof?
9. What does the issue look like in color?
10. What is the other side of this issue?
11. What are the possible short and long term implications?

1. Can I figure this out?
You only need to ask this question once. Regardless of who you are, the answer is yes. You can figure it out. Didn’t go to Harvard? Doesn’t matter. Didn’t go to college? So what. Haven’t ever left your state? I don’t care. You can figure it out. If you don’t figure it out, you’ve chosen not to figure it out.

Figuring it out doesn’t mean knowing enough to construct your own political system. It doesn’t mean knowing enough to write a book. Think about what you knew before you chose you last flat screen television or new car. Was it enough to build a car or a television? Was it enough to write a book? I doubt it, but I don’t doubt that you knew more about that television than you need to know in order to ‘figure out’ a political issue. Figuring it out doesn’t mean being able to create your own democracy. You just need to know enough to ask a few basic questions, and be able to find and make some sense of the answers.

How does one figure it out? Google and the rest of the questions on the list.

2. Once I figure it out, am I done?
The answer to this question will never change, but you should ask it more than once. The answer will always be no. It sucks, but it’s true. It sucks, but it’s important.

Let’s say you read an article advocating more offshore oil drilling. Maybe you even read it pretty carefully, and you might even Google the topic and spend a few minutes reading a couple of other articles. You might conclude that offshore drilling is a good idea. Later, maybe you come across an argument you hadn’t considered, or maybe there is a huge oil spill endangering animals and hurting the economy of a number of states (I know it’s a crazy idea …). You could decide to cling to your position regardless of what happens or what you find out, and work very hard to come up with reasons why you are right. You could, but you’d be acting like a dumb ass.

There are three issues here. First of all, things change. That’s life. Second of all, we are all busy people coming up with opinions and positions on less than full information. No one has time to be an expert on every issue. This means that we may run across additional information after we think we have come up with a position. The additional information might undermine our position. If it happens, we shouldn’t be surprised and we shouldn’t pretend that it hasn’t happened. Third, the goal here isn’t to be right, it’s to fix problems. Don’t think of politics as a place of non-stop competition. Think of it as an opportunity for never ending collaboration.

So, unfortunately, you don’t ever figure it out completely. No one does. No one can. You figure it out for the moment the best you can, and then you stay open to changing your mind.  

3) What is important to me?
You have to ask this question more than once, but not every time you consider a new issue or speech or argument. You have to ask it though. No issue implicates only one principle. And issues overlap with other issues.

Abortion is about life, privacy, control over one’s person, women’s rights, poverty, and sex, among other things. It is easy to imagine someone feeling strongly about the protection of life and about women’s rights, and thus feeling conflicted on the issue of abortion. You may oppose wars but believe in a responsibility to fix your messes, and if so our current involvement in Afghanistan would pull you in opposite directions. An intelligent position on the war in Afghanistan or abortion will require you to have thought about what is important to you.

The bottom line here is simple. Every so often, take a moment to really think about what is important to you. Make a list. Give it a little thought, at least as much thought as you would a grocery list.

For what it’s worth, my list would look something like this:
1) tolerance/respect for others beliefs/practices/values/etc.
2) Freedom from oppression
3) Freedom of expression
4) Economic rights (like the right to a living wage)
5) Efficient (not small or large) government
6) Safety for self/family
7) Making sure we don’t destroy our planet
8) Protecting life


4) How do I feel about this and why?
When you hear a news story, a political commercial, or even an argument from a friend on a political issue, you should ask this question immediately. When you watch a news story on the President’s last vacation, how do you feel? Are you angry? If so, why are you angry? Every time I read an article that is critical of President Obama, my first reaction is to get angry and be defensive. I voted for Obama, and I felt like his election was a historic moment for this country. I want him to succeed. This is why I don’t like to see him criticized. This isn’t, however, a logical reaction. I risk the dumb ass label if I don’t stop and ask how I feel about an article that is critical of Obama, why I feel that way, and whether my reasons are legitimate.


5) Do I need to be nasty?
This one only has a single answer too. No, you don’t need to be nasty, though it is certainly possible. It can be pretty satisfying too. Unfortunately, it gets in the way of solving problems.

Glen Beck might be a buffoon. Al Sharpton might also be a horse’s ass. They might both be racists too. Sarah Palin might be learning disabled. Nancy Pelosi might be the queen bitch. So what? Does any of this get us any closer to solving a single real problem? If true, would any of it necessarily cancel out everything the buffoons and bitches ever did or said?

The person who reads (or doesn’t read) a news piece on line and then posts a comment that you disagree with probably isn’t an idiot, a moron, and/or a faggot. But even if they were, how does any of that form a basis for a real discussion? How does that accomplish anything?

Save the put-downs for the playground. If you can’t, then stick to sports radio or tabloid television or whatever. Political discourse should not sound like your favorite weekly sports radio show. This is important stuff that merits serious and respectful discussion.

6) Who am I listening to?
You need to know who you are listening to, reading, and watching. If you are getting your information from Glen Beck or Rachael Maddow, you should be aware that both are advocating a position rather than presenting unbiased information. You need to know the difference between Fox News, CNN, PBS, and the BBC. People and organizations have agendas, and you should know something about what those agendas are before you accept their logic on political issues.

Would you collect ten random strangers, ask them where you should go for summer vacation, have them write down the answers and place them in a paper bag, select one from the bag, and then hurry home to book your airplane tickets? Would you have them each select a new outfit for work for you, and then go with the selection of the person who can come closest to guessing the number between one and ten that you are thinking about? What about if the question was what school your kid should go to? No. Well, then why is it OK to do when deciding who to vote for President or whether or not we should be at war?

If you were buying a computer, would you only seek advice from someone who works for Apple? Would you only seek advice on oil heat from the representative of your local oil company? Would you accept the opinion of a Cowboy fan on the Eagles chances to win the Super Bowl? Would you consult only a drug dealer before deciding whether or not Marijuana should be legalized? If you answer no to any of these questions, or the dozens of others you can easily imagine, then why would you accept Rush Limbaugh’s viewpoint on whether a mosque should be placed near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York without seeking out other opinions?

The bottom line is that you should know who is making an argument and what biases they might have. 

7) What does “______” mean?
Before you disagree or agree with an argument, you should be sure you know what all the words in the argument mean. It’s not enough to know just the dictionary definition either. You need to know something about what the author of the argument means by that word. You really shouldn’t get too hot under the collar about something if you don’t know what it is you’re getting hot under the collar about.

If you are going to get stirred up against big government by the speeches at a Tea Party gathering, you ought to know what the speakers mean by big government. You ought to know what you mean by big government. If you are willing to risk arrest to protest for peace, I hope you have an idea of what peace is. If you think Obama is a socialist, it would be good to know what a socialist is. If you think he is a fascist, it would be good to know what a fascist is. Before you laugh and say that everyone knows what these things are, take a moment and try defining one of them. You can’t use peace in a definition of peace or big in a definition of big government. Peaceful and bigger are off limits too.

Something else you ought to know is that the author of an article accusing someone of being a socialist might mean nothing more than whatever it takes to get you to be frightened enough or angry enough to join them in disagreeing with/fighting against the ‘socialist.’ Of course, if you take the time to figure out what a socialist is for yourself, it won’t matter.


8) Where is the proof?
If someone grabs you by the shoulder and says, building a mosque near the old site of the World Trade Centers is un-American, you have not been presented with an argument. An argument requires a conclusion along with premises that support it. An argument requires evidence.

It is one thing to say that encouraging abstinence is an effective approach to preventing teen pregnancy and abortion. It is easy to say it. It isn’t so easy to prove it. You don’t want to go easy on people who are trying to get you to believe something. You want to be hard on them. You want to make them prove it.

If someone fails to fully explain their reasoning, makes an appeal to your fear or anger, and/or tries to convince you to go along with them for some reason unconnected with the issue … then they don’t think you are smart enough or they don’t want you to think you are smart enough. They think you are a dumb ass. They want you to be a dumb ass. They don’t want to have to explain themselves. They want you to just accept their judgment on health care or oil spills or whatever. They hope you will live up to their judgment about your worth, or lack thereof. I hope they are disappointed. I want you to be able to disappoint them.

9) What does the issue look like in color?
In 2010 you don’t have to specify that you own a color television. We’re on to high definition, 3 D, and who knows what else that I can’t afford. When it comes to issues of national and international importance, however, we haven’t come so far. There is an axis of “evil.” Any increased government involvement in health care is socialized medicine. Abortion is wrong, because it’s murder. People shouldn’t eat animals, or ever use them to test products that could save human lives. In politics, people are still willing to accept presentations in black and white. Politics, however, really isn’t much different than television. The world portrayed by both is in color. So, any time you are presented with an argument framed in black and white (like Islam is evil or America is always right) you should reject it, and/or you should find out for yourself what the issue looks like in color.


10) What is the other side of this issue?

Do you believe that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion? I do. I don’t, however, think you are a dumb ass if you don’t agree with me. I also don’t think you’re evil, wrong, have nothing to say I could learn from, or have nothing to offer to help address the issue. In fact, there is a lot of common ground between people who sit on opposite sides of any issue, even abortion. No one is in favor of abortions. Most of us could agree that there are steps that could be taken to reduce the number of people who would choose to have an abortion. If we really thought about it and asked a few hard questions, many of us would agree to take those steps, even if it wouldn’t be our ideal approach. Fundamentally, no one’s ideal approach to anything is really feasible. Plus, abortion is not an easy issue. Most issues aren’t. Do you know of a clearly superior way to respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions? What about the right response to China’s industrial growth and the pollution that comes with it? Do you know how to stop the creation of new terrorists? Do you know how to keep illegal immigrants out or how to deal with those that are here? Do you even agree that these are the right questions? Only a dumb ass would think that these are easy issues. Only a dumb ass would call someone a dumb ass for disagreeing with them on these kinds of issues, and then cling defensively to the correctness of their own positions. Only a dumb ass would refuse to ask, or answer, questions about or from the other side on these issues.

11) What are the possible short and long term implications?
If you decide not to go out to the bar with your buddies this Friday night something will happen that wouldn’t have happened had you gone to the bar. You might be hit by a train. You might watch a real life crime drama. You might miss meeting the love of your life. You might miss out on a hangover. It might only mean less time spent picking up puke, but something will be different.

Every decision has an impact and carries with it implications. The burning of a Quran or the drawing of a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad might result in deaths in the short term … and hard feelings, intractable conflict, and more deaths in the future. Torturing suspected terrorists by American authorities might hurt American diplomacy for decades and actually increase the threat of terrorism. Creating strong Unions might hurt corporations’ ability to respond to foreign competition.

If you are going to weigh in on decisions, whether by voting or voicing your opinion in another way, you should be aware of some of the possible implications of your chosen position. If you don’t want to be bothered with that, then don’t weigh in. If you can’t be bothered to ask these questions, then don’t be bothered with any of it. Leave it to those of us who do care to take a little time to ask these questions. That is the only other way to avoid being a dumb ass.