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the noise The Noise (October 2009--present)
articles on non-musical topics: general interest, political and social unrest, and possible amusement

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Bad News: You might actually be your brother's keeper
posted October 16, 2012

When he Supreme Court ruled last spring that the Affordable Health Care Act was actually constitutional, it came as quite a surprise to a whole lot of us. We were sure the court was getting ready to lay waste to it with relish, if only based on the line of questioning and the tones of voice that were on display during the oral arguments a few months back. I was, frankly, preparing this column under the title "Good News: You are not your brother's keeper" and now I have to throw it in reverse and try this on for size: Health Care Reform is going to happen after all.

This got some people so mad they are threatening to move to Canada. Which is pretty funny considering that Canada, along with the rest of the industrialized world, has a government run health plan at least as intrusive as Obamacare is supposed to be. Also that Canada was the primary poster child for stories about horrible health care experiences with a government run plan back when we were having the debate in the first place. People have short memories.

But I get where they are going from. When it comes to benefits, people don't want to know they are really there. They want them, of course, and darned if they aren't justified for receiving them, but don't let on that you are going to let other people have them too or there is going to be trouble. We have to keep that vast network of subsidies and tax breaks and economic incentives vague enough that nobody really knows what is going on because everybody I know works harder than everybody else and you don't want those lazy slobs to get the same stuff I worked my ass off to earn the hard way, by the sweat of my own brow, without any help from the government.

Of course, we could play a fun game where I have you look out your window and point out about a dozen things that wouldn't be there without help from the government, and then look around your living room and find the same thing to be true. But that would involve rational argument, and that isn't what this is about, really. When inarticulate feelings drive our political convictions the only thing we'll do when those convictions are challenged is to fire back.

On the other hand, there is something weirdly reassuring about the deep anger that so many people feel when the idea of our out of control entitlement society is brought up. It seems to point to something in their own psychology and reveals a refreshing candor that you won't get voluntarily: it is like a lightning strike lighting the sky on a dark night and suddenly making manifest the drives of the very people who are most opposed to it. Maybe you've heard that people in Republican states tend to get the most welfare. I understand the connection.

My very Republican mother and I were having a phone conversation one night, and a recent visit of mine to the doctor came up. She wanted to know if my insurance paid for it. It was a doctor visit, I said. I paid for it myself. I didn't see the need to make my rates, and everyone else's go up for something I could handle out of my own pocket. It was just a routine checkup. She was insistent that I should have gotten my insurance to pay for it. I tried to explain that the reason everybody's health care costs are spiraling out of control is that we are all dipping into the kitty every time we have hangnails, and we shouldn't be abusing the system that way. Why should I take advantage of a benefit I don't actually need? I said. Everybody else is doing it, she said.

I had this weird moment where I almost said to my own mother, "Well, if everybody else was jumping off a bridge...."?

That's the way entitlements work, after all. The ones I'm getting myself are entirely justified. I paid into the system, so I deserve to get money back (even if it's several times what I paid in). Heck, I even need to do it to just to get my fair share because if I don't everybody else will get it instead. But those other people (and we can just imagine who they are), those freeloaders, the ones who are just waiting for the government to give them stuff because they won't work for it (forget what the data says about whether these folks have (several) jobs or not)--I'm certainly not going to help pay for THEM!

Like I said, it does say something about our psychology. And, irrational as the narrative playing in our heads generally is, it does point out something important about human beings. We do love to freeload. Republicans probably know this about themselves as well as anybody. But they project the idea onto other people. In secret, they are thinking, man, I hate my job and there is no way I would do it if I didn't need the money. If I could get stuff for free I would take it and never work a day in my life.

Which makes it hard for geeky Liberal professors, who intentionally take less money and love what they do to the point where it is only partly about bringing home dollars, and partly about doing something that has a value beyond the economy, to understand the frustrations of people who are mostly doing what they do because they feel like they have to and don't really have a stake in it otherwise.

There are a lot of other ways we really don't understand each other. As I've mentioned before, I find it rather odd that people of either party would really not be more suspicious of their own institutions. Democrats, we are told, have never met a government program they don't like (though maybe that's a Republican caricature). And for some reason, Republicans of middle income seem to want to make sure rich folks aren't having to pay more than they want to because it is somehow going to stall the economy if the upper 1 percent can't put all of that into Swiss bank accounts. And, oh, yes, invest some of it in America. Don't forget, as Mr. Romney reminded us all with that tone of voice that one uses when people of another political persuasion are just too dumb to understand how something basically works, that corporations are really people. Don't think so? Well, who gets the profits then? Check and mate. (At which point you are not supposed to ask which people or at whose expense those profits might have been acquired and whether they were people too, or whether the stunning insight that corporations are in fact made up of people entitles them to behave as though, in addition to each human member of said corporation exercising the rights he or she would otherwise have as an individual, that collective is literally greater than the sum of its parts and gets to behave autonomously (sentiently?) and as though it had rights that would ordinarily have to be protected by persons able to make decisions. Who makes those decisions anyway and does this amount to getting to vote twice?)

When it comes to health care, though, predictably, people love the part where they get money. Even Mr. Romney decided there were parts of the plan that weren't so bad after all. Which may signal that we have gotten past the stage where the law was in a fight for its life (congressional death panels?) and is on its way to being something all of us wanted all along (you better not mess with my Health Care!). Except for one thing. That darned mandate.

Now my information about this may be no better than yours, but from what I've heard you have options. The government will force you to buy some form of health care, but it doesn't say what. So if you like your current plan you stay with it. Or you can shop around. And if your employer doesn't offer a plan that you like, or if the conservative disaster scenario actually happens and employers use this as a convenient excuse to stop offering health care plans (assuming that they can) you can purchase it yourself. There is a thing called the free market, which I've heard is a wonderful thing. My own health care came about that way. I bought a plan myself, because my employer doesn't offer a plan. It is a strange thing, but, while it's too expensive, it does seem to work. The problem is I know how much it costs, which would be conveniently hidden from me if my employer paid for it and deducted it from my salary. Then I might get the impression I was getting a benefit, instead of having to pay for something.

Having to pay for something is exactly what we don't want to be forced to do. But it does reveal an odd notion of how insurance works. If you have a large pool of people, the costs go down. If everybody has some skin in the game (where have I heard that phrase lately?) then there will actually be enough money in the system to pay for the people who actually get sick, at least until the politicians start spending the money for something else.

But people don't like rowing in the same direction. It makes them feel like galley slaves on board a massive ship (maybe that's why offices have cubicles; you can think you have some autonomy). Putting money into a massive pool means somebody else might wind up using it. My money! That I worked hard for! And being forced to do it, why, that's tyranny!

On a not entirely unrelated note, someone wrote a letter to the editor striking a conciliatory tone about vaccinations. She didn't want them for her children, was suspicious of the risks, didn't think they were safe. No problem, she said, as long as you don't force anybody who doesn't want them to get them, everything will be fine. Some of us can go have fun and be vaccinated and the rest of us have the liberty not to.

Diseases don't work that way. If some members of the population don't have immunity, the virus gets a foothold, where it can mutate into a different form of the disease which will resist the vaccinations that the rest of us have, and that disease, as vicious and deadly as it might be, will keep devastating humanity long after it could have been wiped out with a little cooperation. In this case it is personal liberty vs. science. I like not forcing people to do things they don't want to, but people don't seem to realize that ignorance in the name of liberty is still ignorance. Deadly diseases do not respect our freedoms to act as individuals, cherished as they are.

In this case, it really is a matter of life and death. Benjamin Franklin, who is probably best known for the adage "God helps those who help themselves," which a lot of people think is in the Bible, also said to his brethren, referring to the dangers of revolt from England, "If we do not all hang together, then assuredly, we will all hang separately." That mandate may be the only way to get people to actually put money into the system instead of just drawing it out when they want it.

Or we could go with Romneycare, which at the moment seems to be to continue having people use the emergency room as their primary care physician whenever they need to see a doctor, because they don't have a health plan. Call me crazy, but I think that has got to be driving costs as high as anything.

On the upside, they are hidden. I don't know how much any person's emergency room visit cost my in raised premiums, I can only tell you about the aggregate effect. I can pretty much blame anybody I want to for that. And I am pretty much at the mercy of my insurer, unless I want to tell them to go take a hike and get someone else who will probably cost about as much. What I don't understand is why people don't think it will help to have a little more competition, not to mention a bit of governmental oversight. Did my insurer really need to spend all that money on administration? The government didn't think so, which is why I got a little refund last month. Of course, my provider promptly raised my rates to get it all back. It's a fun game. We'll see who wins the next round. I surely wouldn't want my insurer to have a smaller marble lobby in a skyscraper in New York than somebody else's insurance company.  (what's interesting is that most conservatives I know would agree with the cynicism here expressed. But they wouldn't want the government to try to do anything about it. I'll give you that the government is huge and inefficient. So is your privately owned insurance provider.)

The truth is we are already subsidizing each other in unseen ways. We manage to keep the peace mostly by not knowing to what extant. True, I bought everything at the table tonight with my own hard earned money. But the farmers who grew it were also subsidized to an unknown degree. So was the corporation that manufactured it. I don't know how much that cost me, but it makes the food cost more than I can tell looking at the grocery store receipt. On the other hand, my education was partly subsidized. I had to work hard for that, too, but I couldn't have paid the rising costs entirely out of my own money. Of course, maybe the costs wouldn't have been so high to begin with. Or a lot fewer of us would have so much education. It would be interesting to know, at the end of the day, just how much of the load everybody is carrying. I'll bet we'd all be surprised. All I can tell you for sure is we are all doing what we do with the help of an army of other people. And likewise, our hard earned money gets spent by other people. Maybe some of them are freeloaders. But I suspect many of them work as hard as I do. Do I want to be part of a large system that takes care of my health care? Do I have a choice?
Not in today's reality. Peculiarly, what started out as an initiative to provide more people with care also became an initiative to make sure more of us are footing the bill, which seems like it would win conservative approval. You know, personal responsibility. But I forgot, this plan was sponsored by Democrats, so it doesn't count.

The gut may tell us one thing, and understanding another. And since every group pushing for its own advantage, and since selfishness and greed run rampant, it isn't a bad idea to wonder whether this Obamacare deal is really going to fix anything. Like the rest of you I think I'll have ride this one out for a few years and see if it really got us anyplace we haven't been already. After all, one giant is doing battle with another, the insurance industry with the government, and pulling us all in various directions. Even if people are going with a lack of understanding, they may still have a useful contribution to the debate. I've been wondering lately if people's gut feelings are just as helpful to the political process in the long run anyhow. People who seem to know what they are talking about (in the minority) disagree with each other with the same vituperation, and in about the same distribution across the political spectrum as the rest of us who really don't know what we are talking about but like to think so. What's interesting is which white knight people choose to back. And which subsidies they choose to ignore. We can't have more than a superficial understanding of the way systems like this work, we armchair working Joe everyman analysts, with our outdated notions of science and our imaginary idealizations of individual achievement, but with any luck there will be enough people suspicious of the rest that people won't be able to get away with too much, most of the time. Maybe.

What I can't let slide are the kinds of just plain harmful rhetoric that tries to couch pure villainy in appealing bromides, that pushes people's natural fear levers to get power, the sort of thing an industry might do, say, to avoid regulation, portraying itself as a pure innocent.  And playing on your fears that somehow you are paying for someone else's health insurance and they are not, in the long run, also paying for yours. That the common interest is simply code for you getting the shaft. And the industry is looking out for you, you know, because they just want you to get a good deal, altruists that they are. Besides, we all know the government ruins everything. And if anybody happens to mention a government program that seems to work pretty well most of the time, see rule number one.

We could have had a real debate in this country about what was really in the bill, and how health care should or shouldn't be run, and delivered, and how it should be paid for, but we didn't. Instead we talked about our worst fears and disaster scenarios we'd gotten from futuristic movies. We might have gotten a chance to learn something about the complexities of our modern age, with the unprecedented opportunities we all have for living longer and happier, and, for some reason, with more anxiety and less appreciation for all of these benefits.  We didn't do that, either. So now it is time to do what we usually do which is to just muddle through and find out as we go along. We'll see if the industry was justified in raising all those apocalyptic fears. You may have noticed I'm not betting on this. I figure they had a little too much motivation--fiscal motivation--to be that interested in the common good.

Those not familiar with the Cain and Abel story from the Bible may not realize that the title of this article comes from what Cain said to God when God asked him one day where his brother Abel was. "What?" He might have said. "Am I supposed to be some kind of nanny state handout liberal co-dependant for a brother who can't look after himself? Can't he hold up his own end? Am I my brother's keeper?"    And, you know, to put it that way, it kind of sounds like he had a point. Maybe he even deserves some sympathy. Why should he have to take care of his brother? Don't we have enough trouble looking after ourselves?

Except in this case, Cain knew perfectly well where his brother was. He killed him.

Inventing a Controversy
posted August 1, 2012

There's a quote on the wall at the Negro League's Museum in Kansas City that I've never been able to get out of my head because it tells us something about the strange nature of discrimination:

"If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas by excluding them no injury could result to anyone."

Do you get how that works? Things would be fine if there are no negroes in baseball. Everybody will be happy. Everybody whose vote matters, anyway. But if we try to treat those black people the same as we treat the white people, some people (any guess who?) won't be fine with that, and we don't want to stir up controversy, so we'll just keep to the status quo. This isn't exactly the way they taught us about race relations in school.

What we learned was that there once was a bad old time when white folks treated black folks badly merely because their skin was a different color (can you imagine that nonsense?) and thankfully we are over that now because of heroes like Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King who got us to see that this was wrong.

Maybe some of that interpretation is due to my fourth grade mentality as much as to the curriculum. Maybe, in fact, that was about all the average kid could handle when dealing with a complex subject like this. But it certainly needs some expansion.

For instance, we didn't learn the part about how naturally people like to pretend bad things didn't happen, or that they weren't all that bad anyway. Or that, whenever some group feels it necessary to fight for their rights, they come up against a large group of people who claim not to be able to figure out why and just wish they would leave it alone. After all, it's going to create hard feelings. Better to just keep things the way they are. That Martin Luther King was too much of a trouble maker, causing all that violence and unrest when he should have left perfectly well enough alone because things are just fine so long as you are ok with separate water fountains and separate rest rooms and black folks having to use the back entrance all the time. We also didn't get a primer on how people who are benefitting from the current system say whatever they have to in order to stay in business and do whatever they can get away with. Oh, if only they knew they were doing something bad! Someone must get them to understand!

So when the recent controversy involving Chick-fil-A erupted, and some people called it another example of the left-wing media just stirring the pot for no reason I thought back to that quote. What it really is is an appeal to security which is very seductive given how nervous the idea of gay marriage makes some folks. We want things to be peaceful, and normal, and simple, and those malcontents are not fine with that and they are ruining our repose.

I suppose, given the way this story is portrayed in the right-leaning media, that it might be next to impossible to imagine it for some of you, but suppose for a second that there is another side to this story. Imagine for a fraction of a second you are a gay person. Don't worry, I'm not trying to turn you gay. I'm just saying take a quarter of a second and imagine how it would feel to be in a committed relationship and want the same rights as the rest of us.

Ok, you can stop now. I don't want to strain your empathic muscles, particularly if you haven't used them for a while. Of course, if you are reacting the way I think you are, you have already mentally skipped that last paragraph and proceeded directly to accuse the media of not being fair to the good people at Chick-fil-A, who after all did not actually say anything negative about gay people during the course of that interview. In other words, you have decided to skip the core issue and go engage one of the side issues.

Let's assume that the right-leaning media is correct, and that nowhere in that interview that the left-leaning media jumped all over was there an explicit reference to gay people or gay marriage in a negative light. Let's assume that all it was was a defense of traditional marriage. Still, the term "biblical values" did show up an awful lot. What does that mean, you wonder? I'm guessing it doesn't mean incest and polygamy and knocking up your concubine and being forced to marry your rapist and sleeping with your dead brother's wife, all of which are in the Bible, all to some extent encouraged, or at least not commented upon, and at least two explicit commandments from Yahweh himself.

No, I think it is fair to assume they are talking about that one verse from the third chapter of Genesis which says that "...for this reason, the one man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his one wife...."  Technically, the word "one" isn't in there, but some people have decided that God needs a proofreader to make his case stronger.

In fact, making God's case for him is kind of what this one's about, isn't it? Maybe the folk's at Chick-fil-A didn't actually say it, but, come on, you don't think they said it anyway?

I used to be pretty naive in this regard, taking people at their word. For some reason it took a while to realize just what stinkers we are. And we start young.

Imagine another scene. Brother and sister are in the back of the car. Sister screams, "Mom! Bobby's hitting me!" Mom yells back, "Bobby! Stop hitting your sister!" So Bobby, being a nice little boy, stops hitting his sister. "Mom! Bobby's touching me!" "I'm not touching you!"

You don't need me to fill in the rest for you. You already know that Bobby's finger is poised about a quarter-of-an-inch from his sister's shoulder. He is, in fact, not touching his sister. The strange thing is, mom never seemed to buy that one. She seemed to think the issue was not about whether he was or was not, technically touching her, but whether he was trying to irritate the crap out of her by whatever means he could, and then hide behind whatever technically he could.

So in case there actually are some of you who honestly wonder what is getting people upset about the comments the people at Chick-fil-A are making, that would be the reason. They may not have actually gone out and said they oppose gay marriage, but, given the terminology, and the way the terms are generally used, it doesn't seem like such a flying leap. It would also not be so much of a flying leap if, say, they had previously donated lots of money to groups who, let's just say for the sake of civility, defend traditional values. Supposing they had done that, their actions might speak louder than their words, but then, this issue just crept up on us yesterday and there is no backstory. So what are those crazy complainers so worked up about?

Oddly enough, the idea of "Biblical Values" has been around for quite some time, and it, too, was used to undermine the civil rights of black people. Like arguments about good decent citizenry having to put up with people who were causing fights over nothing, the idea that slavery had been biblically ordained, or that protests were against God's plan, where also a big part of the rhetoric of the time. It's all come around before.

Still, I'm going to throw the chicken folks a line and suggest that if they honestly, honestly, don't mean to discriminate against gay people, they should try using different terminology. Because the whole defense of traditional marriage thing with the biblical values thing means what it means and whatever they might think it means it is now just the latest way to say something without saying it, the way white southerners were once merely "defending" their way of life, which just so happened to be built on a economic system whose chief component was the exploitation of other people.

There was a time during that struggle when it wasn't ok anymore to use the n-word and you had to find another term for what you were trying to say. I think we've arrived at that point in this struggle as well. You can't just go around saying you hate gay people so you have to be in defense of something. Gay people have to be some of your best friends. You like everybody, you just can't figure out why some people are making a federal case out of this and causing all this turmoil.

Like I said, been there, done that. On every social issue. Every time. The saddest thing is the rights issue. Our interviewees have the right to say what they said, don't they? Yes, and I have the right to oppose them. But the time is coming when what they are talking about will legally be  considered discrimination (if it isn't already), and what they are advocating will be against the law (which is why they aren't advocating it, get it?). That's the trouble with rights. People like to hop up and down on their rights and tell us they are sacrosanct and holy and always good and noble things to defend, but when you give people rights, some of them use those rights to deny the rights of other people, and in order to protect those people you have to curb the rights of their exploiters.

So in the end, Mr. Cathy still had the right to say what he did, sort of. Some of what he actually said in the course of that particular interview was even beautiful, and wholesome. Provided you select the right portions, and don't look into what he may have done in the past, you may well come out of that thinking what a nice guy he is and what are all these people worked up about. And how sad it is that after he worked so hard to say just the right things the people reporting what he said didn't have the sophistication to climb out on that high wire with him and not say certain things that he specifically didn't say.

Mr. Cathy is, after all, just defending his--and God's--master plan for mankind.  It is a shame that he is getting attacked for it, by those unscrupulous people who always attack people for everything. You could hardly blame him if he felt like striking back once in a while. I mean, he's only human. Still, that doesn't give him the right to hit his sister.

But don't you worry. I think he's got that one covered already.

 

Uncivil Wars
posted April 18, 2012

Lord help me, I was thinking about weighing in on the Trayvon Martin shooting. But I didn't get very far because lots of other folks are weighing in on it, too, and one of my Facebook friends posted something about it that began with an assumption that I have seen many times before and felt it might be useful to comment on instead. His post began with " I know liberals don't like facts, but..." At which point, my mission for the moment (after I stifled my annoyance) became, not to comment on anything said about the case before us, but simply to suggest that he not use language that suggests that vast numbers of people (such as all liberals) are basically dummies. Sometimes you try to start with what could be managed in an afternoon. Also I was able to make the suggestion in the allotted number of characters.

Before we get off on irrelevancies, wherein a particular conservative who happens to be reading this wants to point out that liberals do things like this too so that makes it ok for conservatives to do the same thing because they started it, I will grant (the first part of) your point, and try to get us back on track by pointing to the theme for the article, which is that this sort of language is unhelpful in political debates, not that it is ok to do it if I agree with your politics and not ok if I don't. Please don't zone out now and produce in your head a list of grievances in which persons on the other side of the political aisle have said similar things and then use that to justify your doing the same. We can really only be responsible for ourselves; it is too much to ask all of the children in the schoolyard to play fair, and it is certainly not ok to behave badly because other people do it, too. Having said that, I am pretty much attempting to do that very thing (hypocrite!).

I read a column once in which a pastor (I think) called for a 'redemption of language' which, understood against a theological background, is a pretty massive transformation. I don't think the point was to clean it up in the traditional sense--get rid of the F bombs and so forth, but to think about what you are saying and how you are are saying it, and try to use language as a tool for betterment rather than the reverse. Not to harm people. Calling them names seems like a clear case of this. And yet, how easily phrases like this drop from our lips.

Having been conditioned this way, surrounded by it, saturated by statements--I can think of a number of them I've seen recently, having heard them on the radio, read them in the newspaper, seen them on television, or read them on Facebook--I don't know if we even stop and think about that anymore. You certainly hear a lot of complaining about how polarized the political atmosphere has become, yet, as frequently happens, we seem to complain about it and then not do anything about it. We fail to notice when we ourselves contribute to the problem.

You'll notice, I hope, that I did wonder aloud why conservatives are always calling liberals idiots, though it does seem to happen a lot. There are websites you can visit and shows on tv and radio where that point is not danced around at all, where that is very specifically and loudly made, and the people in charge seem to be very proud of it. I'm sure the same thing happens in reverse, whether more or less often is not the point. The point is it is a bad idea, period.

It is a bad idea to suggest that somebody doesn't know how to use their brain for a few reasons. The oddest of these reasons is that it is like a gun that malfunctions and ends up injuring the one who shot it. It actually turns off your own brain.

People are usually quite proud of their own logic. They pull a few statistics out of the air, maybe something they've heard from a trusted source, and assume on that basis that they have the proper facts, the most relevant facts, and the only ones to consider. If you've decided in advance that there is a group of people who do not have this fact culling ability, that they are basically unable to reason with the same prowess that has been granted to you, it is unnecessary to engage them. By engaging them I mean to be able not only to introduce new 'facts' as the argument proceeds, but to consider the relevance of the ones you have in your possession. I mean the possibility that you might have to concede a point and not feel defeated if in the process you might be getting closer to the truth--unless you think you already have that in your sole possession. In my experience, however, that sort of attitude leads to stagnation instead. It is like assuming you don't need to exercise because you are already in perfect health. You won't be for long.

The second point to consider is how the definition of 'fact' takes on some interesting qualities. When people use the term in political discussions, they often mean that you cannot possibly get them to reconsider something they have come to believe because it is a fact. The term fact becomes a catch-all term for a great number of things when they use it and is indescribably small when their opponents are using it.

If you find a few statistics to support your position you are of course using facts (you think). Now I happen to believe that statistics are not as reliable as we tend to think they are and I am not the first. Mark Twain said that there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics." They are pretty flexible and can be found to support either side of a case, particularly when we use only a couple of them out of context and ignore the rest. I would imagine it is very unlikely the person who made the comment about liberals not liking facts has never argued with a liberal who has used statistics in the course of the argument; most likely he does not consider those statistics facts because he does not agree with them. This makes the first category (closest to provable, reliable fact, but not all the way there) facts if I use them and not facts if my opponent uses them.

Political arguments tend to be very undisciplined and wander unpredictably over all kinds of terrain. It is usually not long before one makes a general statement about the motivations of one's political opponents. Perhaps these, too, are considered facts. Suppose you happen to believe that when President Obama gets out of bed in the morning his first thought every day is "How can I destroy America?" Is that a fact? In a court of law it would cause opposing counsel to leap to their feet and shout "Objection! Goes to motivation!" Proving the motivation of people you don't know is a very difficult business, and yet how easily we do it! And think of these suppositions as facts! How someone can know something like that is a fact is beyond me. You can believe that it is possible, though I think it is not very likely that we have ever had a president, no matter his political affiliation, who thought that way. You can certainly suggest that the net effect of many of their ideas is bad for the country, or that they are incompetent, but it seems very unlikely that you can really know what is in their heart or what motivates them, particularly from this distance. But these things, two, become facts in our minds.

By the time I had a chance to respond to the thoughts of the gentleman who had introduced this well-worn proposition, he had decided that some figures on the left he didn't care for very much were inciting violence, and he was prepared to hold all liberals everywhere responsible if anything happened as a result (because one liberal is as good as another, right?). It is hard to know how he felt as he typed those words, but on the page they seemed to me to be expressive of strong emotion. This, actually, is the kind of thing that he accused liberals of doing--of substituting emotion for fact. In the old cliché, "liberals argue based on emotion, conservatives argue based on reason." There are a lot of people who can say this with a straight face, and actually believe it, and probably consider it a fact. I wish they would record themselves arguing sometimes and notice how often they themselves raise their voice and say things that come from strong emotion, but cannot really be proven. I think there must be something about the human brain that tends to notice when our opponents are getting emotional but completely blip over it when we do the same thing ourselves.

There is nothing unusual about this progression: it is the stuff of your standard political argument with your standard citizen doing the arguing. And all the time, in the background, is the supposition that virtually everything that comes of one's own mouth is a fact, and that any frustration my opponent feels because of this preconceived notion, or any passion they naturally bring to an issue, is a substitute for substance.

People who argue in this manner do tend to recognize one important "fact:" emotion does tend to short-circuit reason. Because of this feeling, they will assert that they are being entirely reasonable. Even if they themselves do tend to wander off of that lofty plateau from time to time.

My friend naturally felt inclined to justify his position, possibly because he sees the alternative as capitulating. Besides, by this time a few of us were taking exception to his blanket characterization, outnumbering him 3-1. Under those circumstances it is really asking too much of the average human being not to simply dig in their heels and defend their original statement, but with more gusto. In his experience, he said, liberals do not use facts. And he could not resist hyperbole. Show me one instance ever of that happening, he challenged. This does not really make me feel like trying very hard.

Experience is an interesting filter. Might I observe from my own experience that people often tend to forget reasonable statements from those with whom they disagree, and remember those things which support their contentions. If you or I, as emotionally-led liberals, spent several hours staying cool and rational but finally for a few moments gave in to our frustration and raised our voices, that is probably what would be remembered long after by our conservative friends. And yet is not easy for people, being told that they are not reasonable persons, not to act that way. Which provides more evidence, of course, from that almighty arbiter experience. The argument has been often used against women, and minorities, both of whom were told they had inferior skill sets in the mental department, and no appeals to reason or passion seem to have had much effect.

This is, for me, the most devastating effect of a statement like this. It shows how naturally we discriminate against large groups of persons, characterizing them all the same way.  And, in its wake, we often find the most gruesome ways to characterize our opponents. In an article my friend cited, the term "lynch mob" was used to describe the people protesting against the shooting of the young man. I may have missed something, but I am unaware that anyone has been hanged during the proceedings of any of these "lynch mobs." Perhaps we are expanding the definition a little? The article also said something about the left "ginning up the outrage machine." I think this may not be a fact so much as an editorial comment. The last time I was at Walmart they did not seem to have any "Outrage Machines" for sale. (Maybe "the left" was using them all!)

How we interpret what few facts we generally have in our possession says a lot about our thought process. But perhaps I give us all too much credit for being rational in the first place. I've been considering these days that probably most of what we do when we argue is simply to try to clothe as best we can the impulses we have. Do I embrace or reject this person or idea or institution? If so, how do I justify it? And, if I do not have the patience for it, how can I do it in the simplest way possible?

Weaving back and forth between demonstrable (or quasi-demonstrable) facts, suppositions, characterizations, and the like, we form our web. It is next to impossible not to be a hypocrite under those conditions, to not grant the same leniency to others that we do to ourselves. If I misspeak, it is a mistake. If you do, it is because you are malevolent. On days that I wonder how long our republic will last, I imagine its destruction is just as likely to come from people who believe unassailably that they are trying to saving it from everyone else.

Fortunately, there are people who think in more nuanced ways about important issues. You are all going to laugh out loud when I tell you who I am thinking of: politicians.

Politicians get all kinds of crap from the American populace for all kinds of things, including plenty that they have no control over. But it seems to me that there really is a big difference between the person who actually does something and the kind of person who can only sit on the sidelines and complain about it, but would not, if given the chance, actually know enough about the way reality works to be able to do anything even remotely effective. Politicians are all over the place politically, and some of them some of the time use gross generalizations about the other side also, mostly, I think, because they are trying to get large numbers of people on their side, and they know how people think and what they want to hear, which is, regrettably often, how dastardly their political enemies are. Generalizations are easy. Legislating is hard. So even the best do some of both. The rest of us are free from the obligation to enter reality, and some of us take full advantage. Which brings me to my last point about making blanket statements like this. I am going to tell you a secret: gross generalizations about large groups of people not having the same basic powers that have been granted to you--well, using phrases like that is, ---uh.....

It makes you look stupid.

Large groups of people like conservatives and liberals do not agree on everything. They are not all identical. They do not all possess the same reasoning powers. This should be fairly basic, but we often spend a lifetime learning it. Some people, on both sides of the aisle, know how to fashion well-reasoned arguments. Some like to substitute volume for substance. Some of us can tell the difference.

I had a relative who liked to tell stories in which she got involved in arguments with other people. Eventually she would say something and "that shut him up!" which meant, of course, that her superior argument could not be refuted. Having been on the receiving end of some of that superior logic from other people, I can only suggest that sometimes our silence does not mean "wow! I cannot possibly answer that because I have been utterly annihilated by his/her incredible reasoning powers" as much as "wow! Where do I even begin? That remark was so far from what I consider basic reality that there seems to be little point in even trying to continue this conversation!" The tragedy is that many of the folks who do this sort of thing seem to lack the ability to "listen" well enough to what is going on around them to notice. So I'm letting you know. I'm sorry if that challenges your self-esteem. But being the winner of the argument is highly overrated anyway. If you really want the truth the chances are you will come out of virtually every argument with something to at least think about that your 'opponent' put there, and you may even change your mind on a few small matters. Your principles will not change. But you will still be slightly different for the experience.

 

If you do happen to be that rare individual who is interested in improving his or her political discourse, might I suggest the following strategies:

1) rarely, if ever, use the word "fact" to describe what you are thinking or feeling, or even in reference to statistics or the opinions of authority figures, and especially when you are describing the motivations of somebody. You can instead be more thorough about were you got the information and be prepared to acknowledge its possible shortcomings.

2) try asking your opponent to clarify something you don't understand, and actually listen to what they are saying. If you spot a flaw in their logic, point it out, but give them a chance to re-clarify. Take a chance that they are not using words as effectively as they would like but might still have a good argument.

3) try to keep your voice down.

4) never say something that includes phrases like "all you liberals" or "you conservatives always..."

5) actually look for a chance to have your thinking changed about something, even if it is an miniscule detail. That may have several effects, such as your learning something you didn't know, and also, producing goodwill in your sparring partner, who might start making more sense if he/she thinks you are listening more carefully, and that they will not get cut off after only six words. It changes the whole nature of the conversation.

6) ponder the relationship between political argument and thermonuclear war. How badly do you want to make your friend look like an idiot, anyhow?

7) try choking back your annoyance. For instance, if you find this list, or this article, patronizing, or elitist, or just dumb, or whatever, see whether there is anything useful you can get from it anyway. Consider it well-intentioned (typically liberal, right? :)  and if you have to set the author straight about something, do it as if he were a friend of yours.

finally, practice saying this: "I see your point." It is a phrase you almost never hear during the course of an argument, and deserves to be trotted out more often, if only to amaze and dumbfound your opponent, who may very well be left speechless. At which point you can be assured that you have just stunned them by your superior logic which they cannot refute, and declare victory.

That was a joke.

 

Normal Americans
posted January 24, 2012

The controversy that inspired this satire is over a month old now, but the Christmas season for me has a way of delaying publication of some items.--this one literally got lost in the email. If you need a reminder, google TLC and "All American Muslim" to find out what all the fuss was about.

Did you hear about that new reality show? It's terrible, I mean, really terrible.

It's about a family of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and it's called "Normal Americans." They live in a town in Illinois, see, which makes it a pun on where they live, right, which is hilarious, just like the titles of all those other shows on television. But there is nothing normal about them.

In the first place, consider their history. We all know about the American Indians. Most of them were killed, and their land stolen, by these very people. Well, maybe not them exactly. But their ancestors. Some of them. Anyhow, the point is that these people are all killers and land-grabbers.

And do you know what they did to black Americans? Enslaved them, that's what. Forced labor. Stole them from Africa and brought them over in chains to work on their plantations. Some of them died on the way over. Or while waiting to get shipped out. Or on the job.

Actually, they didn't treat their women-folk particularly well, either. But hey, that's all past history. Yours. And yours. And yours. Don't go acting like you weren't in on it.

And it didn't stop there. Some of them set up large corporations that went overseas and basically forced people to work for them, like 18-hour days for about 3 cents an hour. That kind of thing is still happening. Don't act like you don't know about this. The idea was they wanted cheap stuff, and the best way to get cheap stuff is to exploit everybody on the production side. What are we, our brothers' keepers?

All of them--every last one of them--has benefited from this horrific list of crimes. There are no moderates in the bunch, no people who, if you met them on the street, would be kind and decent to you, and maybe even buy you lunch if you were out of funds, or make sure you had someplace to sleep. Quite the opposite. They have been known to go into schools and churches with weapons and kill people. They have blown up buildings with home-made bombs. Nothing is sacred to them. They will strike anywhere.

You'd think people wouldn't want to watch a show about that. Well, it gets worse. See, this isn't a show where young Bobby goes and mows down a street corner in Tennessee because he thinks he's going to heaven if he does, or because his dad told him to. In fact, if you've seen the first three episodes already you may be wondering what all the fuss is about because it looks like a bunch of regular people just doing the same stupid things people always do on television.

Precisely. That's the problem. People who watch this show are going to get brainwashed into thinking there are decent people in this demographic when there clearly are not.

That's why we need clearheaded organizations like the Florida Associations of Retired Truckers to point this sort of thing out to us. That way, once they get wind of this mess, the advertisers can pull their ads, because controversy might mean less market share, and nothing is more controversial than pretending there are decent people out there who deserve to live in peace if they can get it without exploiting their neighbors too hard. Let's make sure we know who our enemies are, and not fall for any of that stuff about them appearing to be human beings just like us. The only thing worse than bad guys who are trying to blow you up are bad guys who aren't.

Makes perfect sense, right?


-----------------------------------------------------------------------


on an unrelated note....
p.s. I'm ignoring you.

Dear sirs or madams,
You are not worth wasting the time to refute. Your moronic presence is a drain on the resources and time of our citizens when they feel the need to bother dealing with the 'issues' you raise rather than spend that time more productively and more thoughtfully. I will not mention your name(s) because publicity is the way you metastasize. Go away.

To the rest of us: see the problem? Now you want to know who I'm talking about. No wonder the bad kids get most of the attention.

Friendship, Limited
posted November 10, 2011

While I’ve been on sabbatical (from this section of the website) a number of momentous things have been happening. One was a Supreme Court decision that allowed corporate money to flow unhindered into political campaigns, because “corporations are people.” More recently, that slogan has been picked up by a Republican presidential candidate and used as an example of how things ought to be in the land of the free.

Arguing against the logic or wisdom of this ruling is unrewarding; it often earns labels like Radical Socialist and/or Free-Enterprise Hater and other fun names; although sometimes the ridicule is limited to “you just hate anybody who makes a profit.” I protest at the outset that I have nothing against corporations. Some of my best friends are corporations.

In fact, I was talking to one of them the other day. I called to ask him about some of the issues of the day, the way you would naturally jaw with a buddy over lunch. The conversation didn’t get very far; my friend put me on hold right away. He was nice about it: he kept telling me, at 30-second intervals, that our friendship was very important to him, and he played some music. I think he’s a nice guy, though clearly something needs to be done about his taste in music.

My friend was very busy: he has lots of other friends. I assume he picked many of them up from Facebook, although I understand he also goes on television a lot trying to sue for friendship. This seems a little desperate. Actually, I’ve thought about writing to one of those advice columnists about my friend. No matter how many friends he gets, he seems to feel like he doesn’t have enough, and that, frankly, strains the quality of our friendship. I think he should be happy with the ones he already has. He has a really fancy name for it: he calls his friends “Market share.” I don’t know if I like being referred to that way, but at least it has the word “share” in it, so it can’t be all bad.

Another issue, while I’m airing dirty laundry, is that he’s always asking me for money. Usually I get something in return, although I have a feeling it is not worth as much as he claims it is, and he pockets the difference. I guess that’s ok. Times are hard, and we all need to look out for each other. Besides, the way he kept reassuring me on the phone that I was important to him really got to me. We’re simpatico.

I keep asking him to go to the game with me, but he never seems to be around. To tell the truth, I’m not even sure where he lives. I guess he’s one of those people with two homes who likes to migrate between them seasonally, like some of my other friends. Apparently, if he tells the government he lives somewhere else when things are going well, and that he lives here when things aren’t going well, he doesn’t have to pay them anything. Nobody likes to take advantage of a guy down on his luck. Some people tell me that if the government asked him to pay something he might move away altogether. He’s so sensitive. But I guess he’s afraid his resources would be stretched so thin he might not be able to afford his fleet of yachts and airplanes if he gave some of his money to my Uncle Sam. I don’t really know about these things. The reason I don’t own a fleet of yachts and airplanes is that my yard’s not big enough.

Sometimes I’m afraid I’m not big enough to hang around with him. And here’s the odd thing: most of my other friends, the ones who aren’t corporations, are always talking about going on diets, worried that they are getting too large. My corporate friend keeps wanting to get bigger. He tells me that if people aren’t nice to him, he might have to go on a diet. He’s actually using that as a threat, because, he says, if he has to go on a diet lots of other people will be sorry. Well, to each his own, I guess. People are all different.

I‘m not really sure what he does, exactly, but some of my Republican friends tell me he creates jobs. This is probably the most noble profession going, and I guess it really should excuse all kinds of rude behavior. Last year he actually bought and sold some of my other friends, which did not seem very nice. It was a bit of a surprise, actually, because I thought that sort of behavior went out in 1865. Not all of my friends were very happy being attached to him, but there didn’t seem to be anything they could do about it. He’s convinced that what’s good for him is good for everybody else. Sometime I plan to ask some of my friends how they like being wholly owned subsidiaries of my other friends.

I guess the thing that bothers me most about him is that he seems really self-centered. I even brought this up with him once. He got really angry, and told me that he was doing everything for the sake of the economy and that if anybody tried to bring him down we’d all be in big trouble. He said I didn’t understand how hard it was to be a corporation with all of the other corporations saying nasty things behind your back and trying to hurt you (kind of sounds like middle school). You can never make enough money because your friends don’t care about anything else and they are ready to find other friends the minute you aren’t profitable enough. And then the government and all kinds of people get down on you just because you make a little bit of a mess sometimes. I said my mother told me I had to clean up after myself and he said that just shows you don’t understand. It’s a really competitive world out there and you can’t go around apologizing for mistakes because that just shows you are weak and wastes money. Let those crybaby complainers find other friends. They are just jealous anyway. When we were through with that conversation I was actually thinking I should stop being friends with him.

In fact, I was a little worried that he might not be that good for the country after all. So, next year, when the election rolls around, I think I might go to the polls and cancel his vote. At least democracy is still at work. Every person gets one chance to say who they think ought to set policy, and we all get treated equally. That’s the American way.

 

 

 

Corporations only get one vote, right?

 

 

 

 

To Your Health
posted April 7, 2010

By the time this gets posted we'll probably know whether HealthCare take two got passed or not. I realize some of you think I've already tipped my hand--I should have called it Obamacare, and by giving it a more respectful name I must obviously be in favor of it. So you can stop reading.

Probably that's just as well. This is bound to be a very depressing article, since I happen to find this a very depressing debate. And, since you are very busy and want me to cut to the chase, I'll tell you: I don't know whether this bill's a good idea or not. I could have tried harder to do my homework, but I've just been watching people on the floor of the House in debate, and none of them want to tell me what's in the bill, either (friends and foes alike), which is in line with everything else I've heard about it, which is the usual rhetoric.

If you're a Republican, you think we're in too much of a hurry to pass this thing. Personally, I think having a year-long debate in this most recent of skirmishes during the last 70 years of on-again, off-again struggles over this issue is plenty of time to get adjusted, but I know that anything you don't like seems rushed. Remember when the Democrats thought Bush was rushing us to war? Forget for a moment whether the war was actually a good idea or not. Don't you think that year-and-a-half, during which all we did was talk about Iraq was really not such a rush? Particularly after 13 years of tensions with Iraq, ever since the previous war. Now it's your turn.

I think it would be fun, if it could be arranged, to set up a parallel universe where the health care debate drags on and on for four years and a half-dozen different bills and see whether Republicans were still complaining about being rushed. It's true that this is too important to pass without really getting it right, but it is also true that this phrase is really just code for 'we don't want it passed at all and we figured the more junk we could throw against it the better.' It's a red-herring in a sea of mostly red-herrings. That is pretty much what has passed for health care debate around here.

Last summer, when people weren't making up things about death panels, the standard complaint was that nobody knew what was in the bill. Well, I don't know what's in this bill, either. I could bother to find out, though. Bills in congress are available--every one of them--so that anybody with internet access can read them anytime they want. One gentleman who was very angry about not knowing what was in the bill was rather surprised when I informed him of this. See, that government that some of you are always complaining about doing all these things in secret is a whole lot more transparent than you think it is, but there's a catch. You have to actually do some of your own research to get to the substance. Those punditry shows are never about what is in the bill, they are about what the on-air personality thinks you should think about what he says is in the bill. So consider this link to a place were you can see the actual bill a public service from me to you.

Of course, if you'd rather just complain about it, you'd be in the majority. It's a hell of a lot easier than slogging through a long, complex bill like this one.

While I've got your attention, would you like to know what I think you should think about this whole debate/debacle? I would, if I could figure it out myself. Maybe I'm the only one in America without a strong opinion. But here are some things I think I know:

The insurance industry doesn't like to share. People are greedy, and don't like to be told so, either. It's no surprise that the industry as it now exists doesn't want the government to get involved. It is afraid its profit margin might get tampered with. Which is quite possible. Sometimes, though, industries that pitch the biggest fits against intrusions like this go on as if nothing happened. None of their dire predictions come to pass, they just find more creative ways to pass any additional costs on to the consumer, and life goes on happily ever after. If the bill gets passed, I'll bet the insurance industry finds ways to be just as profitable as they are now. Don't bet against human ingenuity, especially when it is trying to find a way to make a buck.

But don't blame them for trying, either. And the best way to try is to scare people by using their traditional fears of government involvement. Does the government screw up everything it touches? Well, sure it does--some of the time. With all due respect to my readers, I'm pretty sure you screwed something up at work today, too. It was probably fairly minor, but multiply that across an agency the size of the US government, and throw in the fact that whenever they do something right nobody notices. Of course they are going to make health care complicated and frustrating. As if private companies haven't. What's odd about this is that I know folks who are convinced the government is always a mess and seem to think this means private industry is the antidote. I personally spent more time on the phone last year trying to get large private corporations to fix a mistake of theirs that caused me some frustration than I did with any government agency. I'll bet most of you did, too. See, I don't understand how people can look at two huge forces, government and industry, and conclude that one is a knight in shining armor and that another is a dragon. They are both made from the best, and the worst, intentions of actual people, and they are so impossibly large (most companies have grown so big they can't keep track of your account from department to department) that they can't be counted on not to make our lives miserable some of the time. The principle difference is that what the government mandates has the force of law. In the other corner we have the pursuit of profit, which leads to suddenly and staggeringly increased premiums and people getting dropped from programs when they actually cost something. It seems to me reasonable to have a healthy fear of both of these giants. What is interesting, though, is that people would rather not have a reasonable fear of both; they often tend to be friends with one and scared silly of the other.

While we are on the subject, I'd like the congratulate Obama for managing to get so many Americans to suddenly love their current health care. I can remember the bad old days when people complained that the costs were out of control, and that we had to do something about it. But this past year we all love our health care. And by 'we all' I especially mean Republicans. I want to underline that because the folks I heard speak on the floor of the house liked to point out how everybody in America hates the health care bill. If they repeat that enough times maybe the other half of the country will get the hint and start hating it, too.

The more moderate Republicans just want to start over. Remember, this is the second try. How many more tries do you think we get? If we keep doing this, do you think the new media will ever get so board with this argument that they start reporting on items in the bill instead of the power struggle in Washington? Nah.

If we don't pass this thing, the insurance companies will role over, heave a sigh of relief, and keep raising prices on health care beyond some folk's ability to pay it. By next year we'll be complaining about the status quo again and wonder why somebody hasn't fixed health care. Maybe the chorus won't get too loud until Obama is safely out of office. But complaining is never out of season. If you're a Republican, treasure this moment, because you like your health plan now more than you're ever going to again.

And if it does pass? This is harder to gauge. It will be historic, certainly. But what is it that is passing, exactly? A bigger, badder version of Medicare? Here's my guess: insurance companies will still find a way to raise prices. The government will try to hold them down, which will result in more complaints from doctors that they aren't getting compensated enough for patients. Private insurers will find all the loopholes they can and charge exorbitant rates wherever they can to make up for the times they can't get what they want, which will result in an even more confusing plethora of pricing than we have now. Like airline pricing, it will be all over the place. Some of us will get caught in a web of paperwork and bureaucracy that will practically kill us just when we least need the hassle; others will miraculously experience expediency. It will seem random. The battle of wills between profit and law will continue. It will be worse than before. There will still be uninsured people, just fewer of them. Only now the government won't be on their side, they'll be exacting penalties.

If you can't tell, I'm kind of rooting for this thing because Democrats have been trying for so long to pass some kind of reform (70 years) and every time the industry has managed to get the country so wrapped up in impossible nightmares that ignored the real issues that it would be nice to be able to say "See, all that stuff didn't happen. Why don't we grow up a little and have a real debate next time." Only from what most of us know, the battle has been so hot and fierce that whatever survives is probably not going to do what it promised anyhow. And if we really wanted to fix health care we'd have to fix ourselves first.

 

 

Things I read in the Newspaper
posted November 16, 2009

Here are a few things I’ve read in the newspaper recently:

Most Americans agree there is something wrong with our health care system but are unwilling to pay actual money to fix it according to a poll. Apparently people want the benefits (make it cheaper, already!) to miraculously occur without the sweeping changes requiring anything of themselves. Who knew?

Some cities are using parking tickets as a source of revenue and are trying hard to make sure their parking regulations are difficult to follow and that enforcement is swift. Who knew? (Back in the 90s when I went off to college I sent several mock postcards to friends and relatives with pictures of the campus and ‘wish you were here’ sentiments on the back. One of them was a pictures of a street on which no legal parking was available to the people who worked in the area, so every day the entire street was lined with cars with at least one, maybe two or three, bright orange parking tickets on the windshields. )

There is a thing called road rage and some people are worried about it. Apparently people get angry with each other out on the road and sometimes personal assaults occur; other times persons assault one another with their vehicles. Did you know about this?

Also, driving while texting with your cell phone is dangerous. 23% more dangerous, according to a study. One individual got into an accident recently while talking on one cellphone and texting on another. I think he was partially driving as well. I thought I had better pass this on as a public service. Evidently, not paying attention to your driving can be dangerous. I was shocked to find this out, as I knew you’d be.

Rather than making this entire column about the blatantly obvious masquerading as news, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of things that make the paper worth reading.

The Catholic church made some fellow a saint recently. He worked with lepers in Hawaii. One of the things that have to be on your resume to make you a saint is the presence of two confirmed miracles. Some woman claimed in 2008 that praying to him cured her leprosy—miracle number two. That was good enough for the church, which decided he should be a saint. After all, he gave his life to his ministry. Anybody want to guess what he died of?

Yep. Leprosy. It took him 12 years in the colony to contract the disease (or at least be diagnosed of it)—leprosy turns out to be a difficult disease to catch—and five more years to die of it.

Persons who are wondering why he couldn’t heal himself are perhaps not steeped in the doctrines that quiet such ironies. Critics mouthed similar words at the foot of the cross, missing the point. Then again, Father Damien isn’t exactly Jesus. Though, giving your life to minister to those who are outcast is not a bad way to get close. I don’t know if Damien really thought that way or thought he was invincible and was in denial until the end. Once it was too late he may have even regretted his decision. I don’t know. The story book doesn’t say that of course. But if he knew he was risking his life to minister to those folks, then I think he deserves a medal at least. Instead he will be venerated and almost (that almost is incredibly important to Catholics)—almost worshipped by those who can’t understand why others might find them gullible. All the same, given what he actually did do, sans post mortem reputation, maybe he ought to be a saint. If people make him a fetish rather than an example, I guess that isn’t his problem now, is it?

Here’s another. This article caught my attention in a very strange way. It was buried on page 4A of USA Today on Friday, October 9. It is a tiny article, consisting of three short paragraphs, two of which seem so cliché as to hardly merit a glance—which is why the ending caught me off guard. Here are the first two paragraphs, under the headline "Official Denies Paying Boys for Sex:"

"France’s culture minister denied paying boys for sex in an impassioned response to critics demanding that he resign over a book recounting encounters with make prostitutes in Thailand.

"’I condemn sexual tourism, which is a disgrace. I condemn pedophilia, which I have never in any way participated in’ Frederic Mitterand, 62, nephew of the late president Francois Mitterand, said in a prime time TV interview."

So far this is just your typical story of a political figure getting caught in a scandal, issuing the typical denial, and hoping it will go away. While scanning the page with news from all over the world, I hardly connected with what I was reading—I was just skimming, and would no doubt have completely forgotten it 30 seconds later. But here is the final paragraph. Like the punchline to a good joke, it made several ‘wuh?s’ come to my mind within seconds of each other, crashing about like frightened bowling pins. Here it is:

"In a 2005 book, Mitterand describes Bangkok’s brothels and the joy of paying ‘boys’ for sex. On Thursday, Mitterand said on TF1 television that the book was not a strict autobiography. He said he had relations only with men his age."

Wuh number one: you mean he wrote a book himself in which he actually said in print that he was having sex with underage boys and liking it? In print? He got this published? Himself?

Following by item number two: let’s back up a word. Notice the book was published in 2005. You mean it took four years for this to become a scandal? What were his political enemies doing the whole time? (maybe he hadn’t risen to prominence yet).

And lastly, Mitterand says it wasn’t a ‘strict autobiography.’ That I found hilarious. The way he is going to disavow his confession in print and in mass production is to say that he was exaggerating a little. Ah, the joys of reading the funnies in the newspaper!

The reason I found this article such a joy to read was the way it snuck up on me. Like a good short story joke or even a parable of Jesus (!) it sets you up and then knocks you over at the end.

I gave up on cable news a couple of weeks ago because I was tired of hearing the same people getting into the same fights over the same issues without an ounce of civility or the desire (or format) to actually discuss the substance beneath the flame throwing. Have I missed anything? I’ll bet I haven’t. I’ll bet Obama got in trouble with Republicans over something trivial again yesterday, somebody posted something on Facebook that got them fired and her lawyers are fighting with somebody else’s lawyers, some parents are angry about something their kids learned in school (more lawyers), some little girl went missing and all the networks are covering the tragedy 24/7, and Glenn Beck or somebody said something stupid that has people mad and talking about it, also 24/7. That’ll show him. Also, there is bound to be some racial unrest, and the folks in the middle east are still mad at us.

So every once in a while, it is a nice moment to see something in the paper with a funny twist on the end of it. If only immaturity and greed were that funny all the time….

 

postscript

I've been trying to give up Letters to the Editor (maybe for Lent this year if I still haven't kicked the habit) but I thought I'd respond to this one. It is by a person in Champaign-Urbana who is less than pleased with Mr. Obama. I think that is understating it a little. She uses the phrase 'he scares me' eleven times in her letter. (If I have your gender wrong I apologize; I can't really tell from the unusual name).

Dear 'scared':

You certainly have the right to sound off about our president and his policies. However, I think for your peace of mind, you might try an experiment. Stop listening to the radio or television personalities whose extreme rhetoric are making you so terrified. I say this because most of your letter contains what sound like direct quotes from those persons I am referring to. It sounds to me like you are getting most of your talking points from a tight circle of individuals rather than from a number of sources. These persons are, in essence, telling you what to think (protesting, all the while, that this is exactly what they are not doing). The fact that you are using mainly their words, rather than your own, is what gave it away. I could, of course, suggest that you attempt to listen to some more 'liberal' persons in an attempt to see things from a fresh perspective, but I doubt you would be interested, and in fact, spending all of your time yelling at the television or radio would just raise your blood pressure. So instead, why not just turn everything off and go somewhere and do something relaxing. See if life isn't quite as bad as it seems right now. Now, to your specific points:

"He scares me because after months of exposure I know nothing about him." I would submit that, if you had listened to the man himself speak in a town hall or campaign stop, or read the full text of thousands of speeches available online, you would feel as I do, that is, I know him as well as I know anybody who is not my best friend. Rather than having people tell you what you are supposed to think about him, listening to him directly. That doesn't give you instant access to his innermost being, but I'll bet you come away with a very different impression of him if you listen long enough, and sympathetically enough. You might still dislike him, but you won't be so scared.

I think I'll just print the bulk of your concerns without comment. They are all things I have heard on the radio from conservative talk show hosts who could make a case for plagiarism here, except that you are entitled to your opinions, however they were obtained. I think even the phrasing sounds like direct quotes:

"He scares me because he has never run a company or met a payroll. He scares me because he has no military experience and doesn't understand the military. He scares me because he lacks humility and always blames others. He scares me because for over half his life he aligned himself with radical extremists who hate America.  He scares me because he is a cheerleader for the blame-America first crowd and delivers this message abroad. He scares me because he wants to replace the nation's health-care system with one under governmental control.  He scares me because the media gives him a free pass on everything he does.  He scares me because he prefers controlling over governing."

Many of these things could have been said about past presidents, including Republicans--the experience and military comments, for example. Others I would simply term exaggerations--pretty gross ones, in some cases. But if you are under the influence of a particular narrative--for instance, that there is A media, one big thinking-alike machine, and it is ALL LIBERAL ALL THE TIME and you don't listen to it so you don't notice when a reporter or pundit asks a tough question of a liberal or allows a conservative plenty of air time to get in a shouting match with said liberal so their views don't go unchallenged--it is hard to break free from it. Maybe I could sober you a bit by mentioning that cults work the same way. From the inside they keep you from engaging the rest of the world on your own by making it seem as unsympathetic as possible, so you don't engage it, and you don't let anyone near you because you know they are dangerous before they even begin to speak and so they can't, and this perpetuates your second-hand ideology, making it stronger every day...

We could certainly debate some of your points--if you believed they were open for debate. But you crown your letter by pronouncing that "he scares [you] because [you] believe that if he serves a second term [you] will probably not feel safe in writing a similar letter in eight years." Now, this sort of thing has been part of the American political landscape for eons. The party out of power is always worried that all of their freedoms are going to be taken away from them and that America as they know it will vanish because the president will manage to single-handedly ruin everything. Ask any liberal you know (if you know any) how they felt during the Bush years. I am writing as if your letter is genuine and honest, but really I have to ask you, how did you manage to sit through all of those other liberal presidents--you say that you've lived under 13 presidents so far--and not be scared of any of them? Telling us that for the first time you are afraid is also pretty standard rhetoric for this kind of operation.

But I have to thank you for your histrionics all the same. It shows us all that free speech is alive and well in this country (even if it is sometimes bought and paid for).  As long as I see letters in the paper from panicky folks like you, worried that we are losing the right to dissent from the administration, and there have been a steady stream of them lately, I'll know John Q. Citizen (or John Q. Political Action Committee) is just crying wolf. I there ever comes a day when letters like yours stop appearing in the newspaper, then I'll be worried.

 

 

 

October is, if I remember correctly, S. A. T. month for all those lucky high-school seniors out there. This is an article I wrote in 2004 about the battle over how to construct the test. The story as reported in media outlets was, as you can imagine, a bit sensational. Behind it were teacher's groups, determined to get rid of a proposed essay. How did that turn out, anyway?

Testing, Testing.....
posted October 5, 2009, originally posted March 25, 2004

Let's all give a great big "A+" in mass communications to the opponents of standardized testing. They certainly know how to support their thesis with pungent examples. They've gotten our attention and made their detractors seem patently absurd. Even if their supporting details are a touch false.

You've certainly heard about the complaints regarding a possible essay portion that would be required on the S.A.T. test. Teachers performed a "test grade" on samples of well-known literature and concluded that certified geniuses like Shakespeare and Hemmingway would have fared poorly, while a notorious criminal like Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as "the Unabomber" would have scored excellently and thus had no problem getting into Harvard ahead of these unfortunate Littérateurs.

This is the sort of tidbit that is supposed to make us sit up and go "whaaa? How could this be? Obviously the test must be seriously flawed!" But before we pass silently over this subterfuge, I'd like to give it a quick look.

Let's start with Mr. Kaczynski. Have you ever read his essay? It's quite good, actually. The man himself is a total nut job, but he does know how to write an essay. It is filled with cogent arguments, interesting analysis, and, what is most important for an essay, it provokes thought. It is also quite original (thank heaven for that!). If the entrance examination were based solely on this essay-- I'd have to let him in.

What about Mr. Shakespeare? His contribution must have been beyond critique, right? Well, as it happens, the passage they selected for grading was the speech of Hamlet that begins "All the World's a Stage." One problem here: It's not an essay. It contains no supporting details. Loosey-goosey with the grammar in places. Not long enough. Conclusion: William didn't do the assignment. It may be great literature, but it is not even close to the kind of writing the test asked for. Shame on you, William!

We aren't supposed to be picky about this, of course. The reason this little nugget was chosen to hit the media is that even if we haven't cracked open a book in eight years, we all have this little equation memorized: Shakespeare=good. Unabomber=bad. We are also supposed to conclude that actual thought gets sacrificed on the altar of pedantic conformity when we are graded on our writing. This is an interesting proposition.

My experience in public school during the 80s suggests it is accurate. Teachers were not going around complaining about having to "teach to the test" in those days, but our essay writing was still taught to us in a very controlled manner. Each paragraph had to begin with a topic sentence. There was no use burying it behind an introductory sentence or a transition phrase to connect it with a previous paragraph. That sort of thing was only allowed by the use of stock phrases like "for example" and "in conclusion," two items the S. A. T. test graders supposedly look for and that I well remember being forced to drop into the essay at the relevant points. It was these phrases, not the content of the essay, that were supposed to help the reader find his place within the structure of the essay. Paragraphs had their well-defined hierarchy, and did not socialize with other paragraphs. They all contained five sentences: one for the topic, always precisely three for supporting examples (you would lose points if you added a fourth), and one "clincher" sentence to keep any unresolved issues from bleeding over into the next paragraph.

You'll note that the present essay would be a complete failure under this scheme. The paragraphs are different sizes. I have generously assumed that the reader can follow the arc of my essay by the nature of its contents without it being necessary to point out the functions of each portion with a label. I rely on the length of sentences and paragraphs as a "rhythmic" device as well as other underlying formal elements to establish an uninterrupted flow, something not permissible in a system were you are constantly tidying up your thoughts so that they do not take too long to express, and so that they do not improperly collide with other thoughts. I have dared to put the content first and attempted to find a form to suit, rather than pouring whatever saccharine contents are in easy range into the almighty formal mold.

It seemed to me then that much of my own difficulty in school was due to a conflict of personalities. Some people see the broad view. Some see the details. Teachers tend to be well-organized and to plan in terms of daily lessons and attention to methods and steps. School is designed to reward persons of a similar nature. Once a unit has been taught, a short quiz will be given and in most cases the contents can be safely forgotten. Sometimes the end-of-year exam may be dispensed with completely, or made to cover only the second semester, or, if your daily grades were sufficient, you might receive an automatic A without having to take it at all. Under this scheme it is not necessary to remember what you've learned for later retrieval, nor is it necessary to analyze or be able to think about or discuss those facts you were required to memorize--short term. To me this defeats the larger purpose of education. Now that my school days are behind me my learning is only as valid as what I still remember, or by my knowledge of where to find the information, should I need it again, or by the properties of a mind stretched and molded by having to think and reason. And while I am slowly gaining appreciation for meticulous planning and a close attention to detail, I still have trouble with the proposition that it is primarily these characteristics that identify the best students and gives them the best chance when they have to confront life head-on. Life rewards those who can adapt, and being able to adapt means being able to think.

This was another skill not often promoted by my teachers, and, while I still retain a punching-bag attitude to the folks who came up with some of those silly S. A. T. questions, I wonder how much of the strangeness of those tests was a result of the test-makers trying to make us reason when our teachers were busy shoveling "facts" down our throats and trying desperately to keeping us quiet. What must be at the back of this controversy is this great fear teachers have: you can't easily prepare a student for a test that requires thinking and reasoning. You can teach directly to a test over certain facts, but applied learning is an uncertain proposition. You don't know what knowledge is going to be needed. Worse, you don't know how the test-makers were thinking when they made up the test. How do they want you to think?

Sooner or later we abandon that exercise in uncertainty for well-worn channels of the mind. We trade in complex understanding for caricatures. The folks at the back of the "down with standardized testing" movement know this and they did a good job making us think what they wanted us to think. What they wanted us to realize was that educators grade essays like everything else. They expect it to follow a formula. They want it to conform to a simple, easily digestible plan. They don't want it to throw them any curves. It is not meant to stimulate thought on their part; it is meant to pacify it.

It is a shame that the one portion of the test that could allow for creativity and thought becomes instead another way to squelch it. It is also too bad that, in order to point this out to us, educators had to bend the truth a little and go in search of rhetoric rather than argument. But then, as the mistranslated Machiavelli is supposed to have said, "the ends justify the means." Now how about writing a 500-word essay on that statement!

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