Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit: Voting for your heroes, even when they’re not on the ballot…

It’s Election Day! In hopefully less than 24 hours, this whole reality-show-gone-wrong election season will come to an end. It’s easy to be fed up with the whole thing – the campaigns (including the primary season) have been going on for more than a year. Most of the campaigns failed to really cover themselves in glory, eschewing discussion of policy and concrete plans for our country’s future and instead focused on differing levels of personal attacks, sound bites, and — with certain candidates — statements that would have immediately forced them to drop out in previous years. Really, it’s been a hell of a thing.And amidst all that, a couple of things went seemingly unnoticed. For all the sharp elbows and sharper rhetoric, the Democratic Party primary actually had some substance and did what major party primaries are supposed to do — decide on a qualified candidate, and position the party at a sweet spot (more or less) politically and it did it by consensus. Yes, it was a mess, and the candidate I supported in the primaries did not win the nomination. But again, it did what the whole process is supposed to do. It’s never perfect and there is still much work to do to improve it and the Party itself over the next four years. However, even as messy and contested as it was, it still was 100-percent more successful than the GOP process, where they ended up with neither a qualified candidate or a party platform that has much broad appeal.

Now, as I said, my candidate didn’t win the Democratic nomination, but I will be voting for Hillary later today. Initially I thought I would be doing it somewhat grudgingly – I have never been a particular fan of either Bill or Hillary, their politics has always been more moderate-to-right of my own. That said, both are impressive public servants who have accomplished much – and while they are also flawed human beings to be sure (who isn’t?), you can’t really argue that Hillary isn’t qualified to hold the office of President.

Part of my increased willingness to vote for Hillary is of course due to her opponent: a man-child who is more notable for his tantrums than his policies and who really seems to be an amalgamation of every dystopian dictator ever conceived of in science fiction. He’s not just a bad candidate, he’s genuinely a bad human being – I honestly feel sorry for anyone who has to ever interact with him.

But there’s more to it than that. As many of you know, my mother was the first woman elected to the US Congress from Virginia. And while that is certainly her most high profile accomplishment, it hardly even begins to give an outline of what she’s accomplished. From her early days of being called “honey” by other legislators in the Virginia General Assembly, she always had to fight twice as hard and do twice as much — and still she was constantly belittled and underestimated. But she always did it with a smile on her face (though sometimes it was more of a clenched teeth thing) because she knew that was how you beat them. I was still a teenager when she first got in to politics, and I remember all too well complete strangers calling her a “bitch” to my face (as well as “baby killing lesbian” and many other colorful phrases). While male legislators were lauded for being leaders when they played hardball, my mom was chided for being too hard, too partisan, too …bitchy.

She summed it up well in a quote from a news article about one of her congressional campaigns:

“What comes across in men as ‘fighter, outspoken, champion of the people’ comes across in women differently,” Byrne said. “There was the constant tension between getting the facts out and going toe–to–toe with him, and not wanting to be perceived as pushy [or] brassy.”

Baker, “Byrne Was Subtle in Trailblazer Role.”

So the gender-based double-standard that Clinton has always faced is something I am more familiar with than most men. And as the son of a politician, I also know how intense campaigning really is. Think about the hardest job you’ve ever done – the worst hours, the worst people, whatever it is, and now imagine doing that 18 to 20 hours a day for a year, and you’ve got some idea of what it’s like to run for public office. It’s awful in a way that no one who hasn’t done it can truly appreciate. Sure it looks like a sweet gig from the outside, but from the inside, you realize that no one does this lightly.

I saw my mother in the final weeks of a campaign subtly wincing when people hugged her because of a cracked rib she got from a bad bout of walking pneumonia. I saw her sacrifice and overcome continuously throughout her career in public office – and through it all, no matter what she accomplished and what good she did, there was a certain portion of voters who disliked her just because of her gender and because she “didn’t know her place.”

As I said at the beginning, I had planned on grudgingly voting for Clinton today – my lack of enthusiasm was not because of the emails or anything that’s actually been covered by the “press” (sarcastic quotes are sarcastic!) this election season, but because of my slight disagreements on matters of policy. However, since the conventions and as the two major party candidates have campaigned, I couldn’t help but notice that same double-standard I saw with my mom come up again and again, but amplified by it being a national race. And in the past month or so, I’ve come to realize something: I’m actually glad to vote for Hillary.

Let’s do a little though experiment – imagine if Hillary was a man. Would the email server thing still be an issue? Probably, but only a minor one. After all, men have been elected to the Oval Office after having done much worse. But as a woman, Hillary is somehow being held to a higher standard. The whole controversy comes across as mansplaining on an incredible level: “Well actually, what you should have done is…”. The State Department has almost the same number of employees as Cisco or Whole Foods and I’d say a higher than average amount of red tape for a federal agency, and in the same position, I doubt many of those crying foul would have done much differently in her shoes. It was still a mistake, but let’s not act like this was some huge catastrophe. The email “scandal” is serving the same role that the stupid “secret Muslim”/birther crap did in 2008 and 2012 with Obama – it gives cover for prejudice.

And to play out this experiment, imagine if Donald Trump was a woman. I know, I know – wrong for a whole bunch of reasons, but when you boil it all down, listen to any of his speeches and try and tell me it’s any different than Sarah Palin’s usual word salad. His whole “appeal” is that he’s perceived to be some sort of uber alpha male (which is really laughable if you have half a brain). Can anyone claim that if the race today was between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, that Palin would be polling anywhere close to where Trump is? Of course not. And yet the only real difference is that Trump is a man.

When I walk into the voting booth today, I will be voting for Hillary, not just against Trump. Partly because she is unquestionably the only truly qualified person in the race (third party candidates most definitely included), and partly because of  all I’ve seen and experienced being my mother’s son.

Both my parents are long-time Clinton supporters – they campaigned hard for Bill in 1992. My dad served as the Assistant Administrator at US AID, and in addition to working with the White House while she was in Congress, after leaving Congress, my mom became the White House Consumer Advocate under Bill Clinton. For my mom though, her connection with Hillary goes deeper than that – sort of a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit 🙂 They’ve both had to deal with the fact that some people hate them – not because of what they believe or what they’ve done, but merely because of their gender and their unwillingness to stay silent, stay meek, and stay out of public office.

I’m cautiously optimistic that Hillary will win this thing today – and once inaugurated, I am sure that I will have differences of opinion with her administration’s policies, but I am certain that for whatever successes and failures there are, we as a society will have moved a tiny bit forward and that the world my son and daughter inherit will be a tiny bit more just.

And personally most important to me: the sacrifices and hard work of one of my heroes will have helped make it possible. Thanks mom – this vote is for you! ❤

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Good News Everybody! I Made Four New Year’s Resolutions So You Don’t Have To…

I’ve always believed New Year’s resolutions were… well, bullshit to be quite frank. Why wait for a day to roll around on your calendar to decide to change something about your life? Yes, yes – there’s the end of the year and maybe you’ve had some time off from work or spent some time with your family and received just that little extra bit of changed perspective that inspires you to change. If so, go for it! But I suspect the majority of resolutions come about because:

  1. We think we should because everyone is (supposedly) doing it
  2. We’ve tried to make a change in the past and it didn’t work out, so we hope the impetus of a new year is the boost we need to make it happen
  3. We’re desperate due to some unhappiness in our life and we can’t face another year without trying to do something — anything really — to try and change that.

With the exception of number 1 above, those are good reasons, and again I say go for it! (But maybe don’t wait for the calendar to force you. No time like the present and all that.)

So why am I writing a piece the purports to put forward a set of resolutions for all of us if I think they’re not that helpful? It comes down to that “all of us” bit. These aren’t resolutions for each of us as individuals, these are resolutions for us collectively as humans. Now, to be clear, it takes a fair bit of arrogance to presume you have all the answers and while I have never been accused of being overly modest, I honestly don’t think I have all the answers. Or even most of them for that matter. But some things have stood out to me more and more over the past couple years and I want to encourage us to try and address them. I could be wrong and freely admit that, but if one of the ideas below gets you to thinking about something in a different way, I say mission accomplished!

One note about context: most of these came about because of exchanges and postings on the Internet. That, however, does not mean that they only apply there. And that leads to to…

Error MessageResolution #1: Let’s stop pretending the Internet is something different from everything else. Just because communication is broken down to 1s and 0s and then reassembled does not offer some magic transmutation that isolates this mode of communication from everything else. As I’ve written before, there is no “real life” and “online life” – it’s all just life, because it’s us. That’s all the validation it needs. This idea that because something happens online – whether it’s a posting to Facebook, meeting someone, or whatever is different from “real life” is not only wrong, it’s toxic and unhealthy. By distancing what occurs online from “real life” we are hamstringing our empathy, which when it comes down to it, is the only thing that makes the great sea of humanity around us at all tolerable. Without empathy, without the ability to see those you interact with as humans and something like ourselves, interactions devolve into tribalism, wars, distrust, and hate. So basically the worst part of ourselves. When we view “online” as separate from ourselves and our lives, we take no ownership for what happens there. The “tragedy of the commons” writ larger than it has even been writ before in human history and our ability to communicate with each other being the resource being depleted.

There are other aspects as well, especially legal, where it makes no sense to treat what is online or digital as somehow different, but those are mere inconvenience next to the giant morass that is our inability to constructively interact and communicate with each other. One can argue (fruitlessly it seems to me) about what “makes us human,” but when it comes down to what makes a civilization and culture, it’s the ability to communicate and empathize. So if we like that sort of thing, we should probably at least consider this one.

256px-Radio_News_Sep_1928_CoverResolution #2: Stop watching TV news.
I grew up (back in the ancient times of the ’70s and ’80s) watching the local news, the national evening news, and in my later teens, the local evening news. I also grew up listening to news radio and reading the newspaper, weekly news magazines, and pretty much anything else I could read. (tl;dr – my parents were news junkies for various reasons) Then as I grew older and the Web came to be a thing, I stopped. First went the local news. Then the national news. Then the newspapers and magazines. But when it comes to current events, I consider myself better informed than most (thanks Internet and diverse news sources!). For some of you millennials, I’ll probably have to explain that it used to be the case that something wasn’t regarded as having happened until the likes of Walter Cronkite told us so, and then we read the paper the next day to figure out the details of what it was that happened, and then we read a weekly magazine like Newsweek to find out what it all meant. We’d spend up to two weeks just getting it straight in our heads what happened. It was imperfect, flawed, and slow, but it worked in it’s own way.

Then something changed. We got 24-hour news channels. To fill all that time, they’d hype stuff relentlessly, just to keep eyeballs glued to the screen (because that got viewers and that gets advertisers and that gets money). Local and national network broadcasts changed to compete in an escalating war of “This common household product may be killing you!” stories. Then they hit on the real winning formula. Celebrities. But not just movie or sports celebrities – anyone who had the least bit of fame was fair game, and being a democracy, we have a whole host of people who are most notable for being slightly famous – politicians. So now we treat entertainment gossip as “news” and political news as gossip. Today, those channels still have 24 hours of programming to fill, and they continue to create “narratives” rather than news. “The reveal” morphs into “the backlash” which then dives into coverage of “the debate,” and this in turn will sometimes spinoff into the “why this difference of opinion reveals how broken everything is“, and then it all either gets ignored (if it just becomes too boring but no worries – it will be revived later with the “whatever ever happened to…” piece in a year or two) or it merely starts again – rebooted if you will – once some new event happens. I mean, we all complain about movie reboots, but CNN and Fox News have been pulling that crap for years.

So what I’m suggesting is, that no matter your ideological bent,  we all just stop watching TV news. No more MSNBC, no more Fox News, no more CNN… no more network evening news — none of it. Sure, other news sources are just as beleaguered, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them as formats. Whereas news and TV are inherently incompatible – TV news provides the illusion of being informed with none of the substance – it has no information density and becomes merely an echo chamber. Want to learn something about what’s happening in the world? Do literally anything else. Read a newspaper (if for no other reason than you can tell your grandkids about it one day), or preferably go online. But don’t just go to one site, go to as many as you can – read articles from places where you won’t know what the article is going to say before you read it. Don’t know where to start? Browse Twitter. Sign up for Feedly. Just whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV to get your news – it not only doesn’t work, it pollutes the well of discourse in the name of increasing some megacorp’s bottom line. When a news source becomes more concerned with it’s bottom line than in reporting the news, it should stop being considered a news source.

Resolution #3: Realize no one gets a cookie for being right. What do I mean? I mean that, especially in America, we are so concerned with winners and losers, we’ve lost sight of the fact that not every issue has a winner or a loser. We seem to have become so uncomfortable with gray areas that we avoid thinking or talking about them and every issue becomes a battle between opposing sides, and the ultimate casualties are nuance and understanding. We’ve all become this:

Except we’re all this way with everything now, not just the Internet

To give you an example: the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Back before this was passed by Congress and signed by the President, there was discussion about what the legislation actually did (not nearly as much as there should have been, but some). So what do we hear about now? If you’re a Republican holding office, you’re stance is pretty much required to be “Repeal it!” or at the very least “Sabotage it’s implementation!” And if you’re a Democratic office holder, you’re dictated stance is “Protect it at all costs.” The debate has stopped being about how to generally improve health care in this country, and become who can score the most political points off the opposition over this flawed piece of legislation that nonetheless has improved healthcare for millions.

Photo by sajbrfem / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s mental laziness. Rather than thinking about the hard stuff, we drift towards what’s easy: declaring ourselves right, and anyone who disagrees with us as wrong. Never acknowledging what’s wrong in our own assumptions and what’s right in the assumptions of others. I could literally spend all day giving other examples: abortion, the death penalty, climate change, race, guns, police use of force, GMOs, sexism … the list goes on. These issues have become entirely focused on the debates themselves and have lost sight of trying to find solutions that actually might improve the world we all live in. The only time a specific point is raised is when one side attempts to wield it like an intellectual Excalibur to slay every argument of the opposition.

So let’s be clear. Being “right” doesn’t entitle you to anything. No awards. No trophies. And no cookies. And it most certainly doesn’t entitle you to stop thinking about things. Which leads us into…

chooseagain-8ballResolution #4: Choose again. Lastly, we come to this. All good fiction, in my opinion, is transformative for the reader by definition. But once in awhile, you’ll run across something that truly and deeply changes your perspective. Such was the case with myself and Dan Simmons Hyperion/Endymion novels (known as ‘The Hyperion Cantos‘). A fascinating amalgamation of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it introduces a Messiah-like character named Aenea whose message for mankind is simply “Choose again.” To explain that, let me provide this excerpt from Rise of Endymion, the fourth book in the series:

“I got my message down to thirty-five words. Too long. Then down to twenty-seven. Still too long. After a few years I had it down to ten. STill too long. Eventually I boiled it down to two words.”
“Two words?” I said. “Which two?”

“Choose again,” said Aenea.
I considered that for a wheezing, panting moment. “Choose again?” I said finally.
Aenea smiled. She had caught her wind and was looking down at the vertical view that I was afraid even to glance toward. She seemed to be enjoying it. I had the friendly urge to toss her off the mountain right then. Youth. It’s intolerable sometimes.
“Choose again,” she said firmly.
“Care to elaborate on that?”
“No,” said Aenea. “That’s the whole idea. Keep it simple. But name a category and you get the idea.”
“Religion,” I said.
“Choose again,” said Aenea.

When we look for answers, humans tend to either adopt a stance based on what they think they should (parents, society, etc.) or by rejecting a stance based on what they dislike (again parents, society, etc.) — but, and this is the part where we all fail time and again, we don’t often revisit those assumptions. By believing in them, we take them into ourselves and they become a part of us, and when they are challenged, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. Once that happens, discussions stop being about the issue and become about us.

The benefits to changing this — to constantly and consistently deciding to “choose again” — are two-fold. First, we can better adapt (you know, that trait that got us from being single-celled critters intent on eating each other to creatures that could wear smart watches and order a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato) – to changing circumstances or new evidence. Secondly, by focusing as intensely on questioning ourselves as those around us, we gain better understanding of ourselves and empathy towards others. Institution after institution throughout human history has survived and even flourished by working against this – and yet human progress continues on, always because of someone deciding to choose again. And then the the disruption becomes the new status quo, until someone chooses again – often at great cost.

It’s by no means easy, but let’s realize perfect is the enemy of good enough and give it a try. What can it hurt?

And there you have it…

So if everyone follows these resolutions in 2015, can I guarantee world peace, an end to hunger, and whiter whites and no ring-around-the-collar? Nope. I can’t guarantee bupkis. That’s sort of the whole point. And certainly none of these ideas are original to me. But are any of them inherently flawed? I don’t think so. In my own can’t-quite-shake-being-a-child-of-the-70s way, I do believe if enough people adopted these as their own, the world would be a better place. There is so much energy that we pour into discussions of certain issues without ever realizing we’re talking about effects without ever dealing with causes. So if by some miracle, some consensus is formed that allows us to move forward, we’ve only won a temporary reprieve as the original cause still has not been addressed.

And the original cause is almost always us. Humans. We continue to push back the edges of what we know about the universe and yet spend so little time and attention on understanding ourselves and how we interact with one another. My daughter has already been taught the basics of economics in 1st Grade (she was explaining this to me just the other day), and yet she’ll probably never receive any in-depth instruction in school about:

  • Critical thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Effective personal communication
  • Developing emotional intelligence

…suffice to say, the list goes on. We have an educational system that’s main avowed purpose is to turn out the next generation of workers, when what we need is the next generation of decent human beings. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I know enough to see that things can’t continue as they are.

On a personal note, my goal (no, not a resolution!) is to write twelve posts about these sorts of topics in 2015, one each month. I hope you’ll check back in occasionally.

Luxury Lane Soap and the Amazing Kylee Lane Need Our Help!

[Note: I don’t often ask people to support causes I believe in, and many who are reading this may have already donated and/or know Kylee, but for those who haven’t and who don’t know her, I sincerely ask you to read this to learn a little about her and consider adding your support to this amazing project. If you have already donated, please consider sharing this post!]

Have you ever met someone who not only showed you something new, but changed your ideas on what was possible? I have and her name is Kylee Lane. And I can say without hyperbole she’s also changed how I think about a great many things.

kylee_family
Kylee with her amazing family

A little over four years ago I ran across her on Twitter and saw her tweeting about her Luxury Lane Soap all-natural handmade soaps, one of which was her ‘Brain Wash Soap.’ On pretty much a lark, I bought it – truthfully not expecting much other than a cute novelty soap. But when it arrived, I was in for an epiphany. It was raspberry-scented but it didn’t smell like any raspberry-scented product I’d ever smelled… it smelled like real raspberries. Fresh, just-picked raspberries. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.

Now, I am someone who buys unscented products whenever I can – I find most commercial scents cloyingly artificial. But this was a revelation to me. I contacted Kylee almost immediately to let her know how amazing this was and ask what magic made this possible. She told me about how she mixes essential oils to make the scents and then mixes them into natural ingredients in a completely handmade process to make the soaps.

And one of the most important friendships of my life was born. A friendship that to this day has made my life a richer, more interesting thing. In that time I’ve seen Kylee produce more and more products, branching out from the geeky novelty soaps to the most amazing Organic Artisan Soaps and shampoos & conditioners, lotions, and now make-up. She makes this all by hand. Just her. And with levels of passion and creativity that are truly incredible. She is not just a crafter – she’s an artist practicing at the highest reaches of her art.

She’s also a business woman, who created this company from scratch and has continued to grow it every single year. But she needs our help! To continue growing her small business and to expand the number of amazing things she can make, she’s currently running an Indiegogo campaign to remodel space in her historic house as a new work studio. She’s figured out all the costs and she needs $5,000 to make this happen. She’s already over $4,000 and needs our help reaching her goal! And she has some really spectacular perks for backers!lls_ballroomWith this newly remodeled space, Kylee will be able to hire assistants, make more products, and create them more easily. Now, I’ve seen her produce an entire set of holiday orders (as in hundreds of orders) out of a small kitchen in her previous house. It involved lots of not sleeping, stress, and drinking coffee. With her family in their current house (which is pretty sweet by the way), she now has the opportunity to create a space where she can do the best work she’s ever done.

Now I could go on about the importance of supporting crafters, but I’ve already done that. Or I could go on and on about the importance of supporting small-businesses, but honestly if you don’t already think that’s important, then nothing I say will change your mind. So why should you – yes YOU – personally reach for your credit card and pony up some of your hard-earned cash?

Because quality matters. Because making things by hand is in danger of disappearing as a way of life. Because sometimes a thing is so magnificent or a person is so incredibly talented that it falls on all of us to help foster and support. The world needs more people like Kylee and this once, Kylee needs us.

I grew up in a world of politics and government. I’ve met Presidents, governors, senators, and congresspeople. In my various jobs, I met CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and some of the people credited with creating the Internet. And I say with all honesty that Kylee is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met and I’m honored to be her friend.

I hope you will consider contributing to this project – both because I’m hoping for the best for her, but also because it’ll be a type of investment in the type of things this world needs more of. Like her handmade products, there is a genuineness to her that can’t be faked, 3D-printed, or mass produced.

Thank you.

 

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I don’t care where you fall on the various spectra of gender, race, ethnicity, belief, socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation. I don’t care if you accept or reject anyone’s ability to label you with any of those things. I don’t care if you’ve lived a life with or without privilege.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you’ve been a perpetrator or a victim of oppression and assault. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve been shamed or done the shaming. It doesn’t matter to me whether the laughter has fallen hard upon your ears or been launched like a bullet out of your mouth.

Your views on sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are immaterial to me. As is the taxonomy of your uniqueness as a snowflake.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for my rights.

I am not even fighting for the rights of my children.

I am fighting for the only rights that matter.

I am fighting for our rights. Each and every goddamn one of us.

The people we hate. The people who are different. The people who hate us.

Because the moment I stop fighting for our rights and start fighting for my rights is the moment I lose.

This late night rant brought to you by seeing too much activism simply degrade into bullying and identity politics. You want to bring about change? You want equality, civil rights, and social justice? Then work to bring it about for everyone, because every case of inequality and oppression throughout history is the result of someone else getting what was theirs and then deciding that was enough.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Election Night 2013 – Why this was not a great victory for Virginia Democrats *updated*

I should remind myself not to go number diving on election night, it’s depressing even on the nights we win sometimes.

Total voter turnout for Virginia’s gubernatorial races:
2001: 46.38%
2005: 44.96%
2009: 40.37%
2013: ~39% or so it looks like IMO
[from Virginia State Board of Elections]

This is a very bad trend. Democrats may have won for Governor and for Lt. Gov (and perhaps by some miracle Attorney General as well), but less than 20% of registered voters voted for them. 71.78% of Virginia voters turned out for last year’s presidential election and 1.9M of them voted for Obama – there’s a *TOTAL* of 2.2M voters this year. Now I know as well as anyone how hard it is to get people to vote in non-presidential election years, but this goes beyond “it doesn’t even look like we’re trying” to “we’re measurably getting worse at this.”

I started out in Virginia politics back at the beginning of the 1980s at the same time my parents did (the events naturally having a strong causality). Perhaps it’s just nostalgia on my part, but it seems to me that the Virginia Democratic Party of the 1980s (old-school as it was) would run circles around the Virginia Democratic Party of the 2010s with all its fundraising, social media, and complete lack of a party-wide, county-by-county, precinct-by-precinct, from-the-ground-up GOTV effort.

*UPDATE* Okay, so was about to turn in for the night when I found a table of voter turnout in Virginia since 1976 (from http://sbe.virginia.gov/VotingStatistics.html — style annotations are my own: bold = presidential election years and italics  = gubernatorial elections. And the 2013 numbers are estimates based on the results with 99.27% reporting and the Nov.1 registration stats)

What the chart below shows is that we used to have about 80% turnout for presidential elections and about 60%+ turnout for gubernatorial years. Basically starting in ’96 we start drifting down to the 70% range for presidential election turnouts and have a precipitous drop to the 40% range for governor races. Basically, the best we ever did in terms of voter turnout during a gubernatorial race in recent history was 1989 — the year we elected Douglas Wilder as the first African-American Governor of Virginia and we did it with 66.5% voter turnout. As Democrats, we know we’re strongest when turnout is high, and yet as I pointed out, that hasn’t seemed to be the focus of the party for some time now.

Summary of Virginia Registration& Turnout Statistics
November General Elections: 1976 – Present
Year Total Registered % Change from Previous Year Total Voting Turnout(% Voting of Total Registered)
2013 5,240,452 -3.5% 2,160,068 41.2%
2012 5,428,833 6.1% 3,896,846 71.78%
2011 5,116,929 1.68% 1,463,761 28.61%
2010 5,032,144 1.54% 2,214,503 44.01%
2009 4,955,750 -1.57% 2,000,812 40.4%
2008 5,034,660 10.7% 3,752,858 74.5%
2007 4,549,864 – 0.1% 1,374,526 30.2%
2006 4,554,683 2.3% 2,398,589 52.7%
2005 4,452,225 – 1.5% 2,000,052 45.0%
2004 4,517,980 7.1% 3,223,156 71.4%
2003 4,217,227 – 0.1% 1,296,955 30.8%
2002 4,219,957 2.7% 1,331,915 39.4%
2001 4,109,127 0.9% 1,905,511 46.4%
2000 4,073,644 7.0% 2,789,808 68.5%
1999 3,808,754 2.3% 1,373,527 36.1%
1998 3,724,683 4.5% 1,229,139 33.0%
1997 3,565,697 7.3% 1,764,476 49.5%
1996* 3,322,740 9.4% 2,468,229 74.3%
1995 3,038,394 1.3% 1,585,783 52.2%
1994 3,000,560 0.9% 2,078,106 69.3%
1993 2,975,121 -2.6%** 1,817,777 61.1%
1992 3,055,486 9.4% 2,582,966 84.5%
1991 2,791,747 2.1% 1,371,940 49.1%
1990 2,735,339 -0.1% 1,252,971 45.8%
1989 2,737,340 -4.9%** 1,821,242 66.5%
1988 2,877,144 8.3% 2,231,876 77.6%
1987 2,657,412 1.8% 1,571,110 59.1%
1986 2,609,698 0.5% 1,115,179 42.7%
1985 2,597,904 -2.9%** 1,377,966 53.0%
1984 2,675,641 14.8% 2,180,515 81.5%
1983 2,330,595 4.3% 1,178,707 50.6%
1982 2,234,011 0.9% 1,454,628 65.1%
1981 2,214,926 -4.1%** 1,437,382 64.8%
1980 2,309,181 12.6% 1,881,648 81.4%
1979 2,050,499 1.2% 1,059,158 51.6%
1978 2,026,515 0.2% 1,251,471 61.7%
1977 2,022,619 -4.8%** 1,267,208 62.7%
1976 2,123,849 1,716,182 80.8%

Tucking this whole Jayne’s Hat business into its bunk…

I believe this will be the last I post on this — I just want to make a few observations after my post from yesterday. Buzzfeed posted an article late last night about the whole thing, and even featured some of my tweets about it. And ThinkGeek posted a couple of responses to all this yesterday and today. First, they disavow any involvement in the cease and desist orders sent to crafters selling their own Jayne Hats and secondly they’ve announced that 100-percent of the profit will go to the “Can’t Stop the Serenity, a Browncoat charity dear to ThinkGeek’s heart that raises funds and awareness in support of Equality Now.”

Well, that makes it all better, right? After all, ThinkGeek doesn’t even own the license, they just worked with the Firefly license owner Ripple Junction on the hat, and besides we all know what kind of assholes those guys at 20th Century Fox Television are! And now that they’re donating all the profits from the hat to a worthy, Firefly-oriented charity, all is well in the land of the geeks.

But…

You knew that was coming, right? But what about the crafters? Some of whom have been selling these hats for eight or more years? They kind of got stuck with the crappy end of the stick on this one, didn’t they? I don’t see anyone donating to a charity for them. And please don’t give me any gruff about how they shouldn’t have been selling unlicensed copies in the first place. Unless you’re willing and able to make 10,000 units of something, license owners won’t even answer your emails. And it’s a damn hat — a part of a costume from the show, so not covered by copyright. It’s not like Fox owns the design of the hat. There’s no way any court in the land would back Fox’s play here.

However, what crafter in the world could afford the time and expense AND risk of fighting it in court? Not a single one I’m aware of. So who is to blame, and more important what can be done to stop a cluster like this from happening again?

Well, Fox is clearly to blame for the cease and desist orders. Or are they? Under current law, if there is the smallest sign that the owner of intellectual property hasn’t enforced its rights to the fullest, it puts their intellectual property claims in jeopardy. So yes, Fox is still being a dick about pretty much everything Firefly-related, but not especially so in this instance. It could even be argued that they’ve willingly allowed this market in Jayne hats to exist for almost a decade without going after folks. Something obviously changed in the past few months then, huh?

What about Ripple Junction, the license owner? They’ve been strangely quiet, and some have said that if the Etsy listings were reported to them, they were required to pass that information along to Fox for action. That may or may not be the case, but in my experience, the companies that purchase these merchandise licenses are very aggressive (read “way too fucking aggressive”) about pursuing non-licensed sellers. I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from thinking that Ripple Junction wasn’t looking to instigate action against non-licensed sellers from the very beginning. One can easily imagine that when deciding to mass produce the hat, they did their due diligence to see how much demand there was for this product and cruised by lots of those Etsy listings well before any hats were even made or agreements to manufacture signed. As one troll noted to me on Twitter yesterday (in a different context), that’s just Business 101.

And lastly we come to ThinkGeek. Again, as I stated earlier, I’ve been a customer of ThinkGeek for ten years and very much a supporter of the company. They and Valve are usually at the top of the very, very short list of companies I repeatedly point to as doing right by their community and the world in general. But being a fan, like being a friend, sometimes means you have to call someone on their shit, and in this instance I believe ThinkGeek still deserves some of the blame. The mass produced Jayne hat was, as they have said, their idea and they worked closely with Ripple Junction on the design. It is likely that had they not done so, the C&Ds would not have been sent out. Maybe not forever, but not within months of having started to sell their licensed version.

Regardless of who owns the license, who sent the cease and desist orders, or anything else – ThinkGeek decided to …well, there’s really no other word for it… bully crafters out of the business of selling Jayne hats. They claim this was due to public demand, despite the fact that any web search of “jayne hat” back in November 2012 would have led to dozens and dozens of independent crafters selling them. No, what they did was that they saw a market ripe for the taking since they’d be selling the officially licensed version.

I challenge anyone at ThinkGeek to tell me, with a straight face, that they didn’t anticipate that bringing a licensed Jayne hat to market would result in crafters getting shut down. I mean the whole point of selling “licensed” products is the ability to get non-licensed sellers shutdown. Honestly, the fact that ThinkGeek would not be licensing the product themselves and would be working with another company who did own the license was probably seen as a huge benefit — if anyone complained, they could just point their fingers at Ripple Junction and Fox and say “Sorry guys, we’re not the ones shutting you down.” — a statement that is, while superficially factual, still misleading.

That’s it for the Parade of Blame, unless you want to pull in every US citizen that has never voted for candidates interested in making intellectual property reform a priority for our government. As it stands now, the system is pretty damn broken.

While the damage in this case has been done and can’t be undone, I do have one last suggestion for ThinkGeek, and it’s one that I sincerely hope they give some thought to as I still believe the company and all of its employees are some genuinely nice, geeky people:

Please don’t compete with the community of geeky crafters. There are probably a number of other licensed, mass-produced versions of products you can start selling. That doesn’t mean you should. You aren’t Aperture Science. You don’t need to do what you must because you can. There is more than enough business for you to keep on selling (and sometimes creating) wonderful products without looking to muscle crafters of handmade products out of business — because that is exactly what will happen every time you do.

What ThinkGeek *Should* Have Done (And Still Can!)

*update at bottom of the page*

So, just to start off, I like ThinkGeek — I really do. I’ve been a customer since 2003 and have literally spent thousands of dollars on their site (helped that my company used to give out prizes and I made sure to buy them at ThinkGeek. Also helped by the fact I’m a complete nerd.). I’ve bought stuff from them for my friends, my wife, and my kids. Hell, for me, they’re even based locally and I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow.

But with growth comes change — note I did not say ‘progress.’ As highlighted with the recent Jayne Hat issue, ThinkGeek has made a conscious decision to eschew crafter created pieces (which they used to carry a smattering of), and focus on mass-produced, licensed products. One can argue if it was an intended or unintended consequence, but part of the upshot of this is that FOX is now going after crafters of fan-created art on Etsy like a pack of hybrid lawyer-dementors. Reportedly this includes other Firefly-related items, but has mostly been focused on sellers of the aforementioned Jayne hats.

Sadly, the irony of mass producing a knit hat that in the show was handmade by Jayne’s mother is lost on ThinkGeek. Evidently also lost was what the impact of cease & desist orders would be on the crafters who had been selling these items for many years. (And let’s not forget the irony of FOX “protecting” the Firefly intellectual property when they’ve repeatedly done everything in their power to screw over the show itself.)

Now ThinkGeek could have done a number of things differently. They could have gone with an unlicensed hat and just called it something else — FOX doesn’t own the intellectual property of the style of hat (though I’d love to see them try and establish prior art for it!), just the association with Firefly and the character Jayne. Or they could have even said “Hey, we COULD mass produce this hat, but really part of the whole phenomenon of this is that they’re handmade, so maybe we just shouldn’t bother.” However, if they really felt there needed to be more Jayne hats in the world, as they told me in a tweet earlier today, why not think a little more boldly?

What I’m about to suggest is something I’ve tossed around as a business idea of my own for awhile and discussed with a number of friends — but let’s face it, I’m middle-aged, married, with kids and a mortgage — my days of startups are probably behind me. Instead, I’ll gift this idea to ThinkGeek in the hopes that they really do want to do the right thing (unless they want to hire me to help run it, in which case, let’s talk):

Imagine, if you will, the force for geeky goodness that ThinkGeek could be if they decided to create their own online storefront for geeky crafters? Instead of having to wade through billions of potential Regretsy items to find the real quality stuff, imagine going to thinkgeek.com and in addition to seeing Portal gun replicas and Annoy-a-trons, you could find handmade hats of an especially cunning design, handmade Chell costumes, and handmade hobbit pipes. That would be pretty fricking cool, wouldn’t?

Imagine the benefit to those geeky crafters, having their wares brought to the attention of folks already actively looking for geeky products? ThinkGeek wins, crafters win, and more importantly all the rest of us win. There is assistance and advice ThinkGeek is especially well suited to offer these small scale crafters, especially on shipping and possibly even on avoiding the traps of intellectual property infringement. Basically the only loser would be Etsy, and you know what? Screw Etsy.

For me, part of being a geek is tied into the maker culture — geeks tend to really like making things themselves or they have a lot of love and respect for those who can and do. If ThinkGeek followed my suggestion they could in essence offer the best of the entire geek world while remaining true to the spirit of what, at least to me, it means to be a geek.

Otherwise, they’ll continue to move to be a part of everything that runs counter to that spirit, and hurt crafters — the very ones who embrace that ethos with their time, energy, and hard work.

Finally, to be absolutely clear, FOX is the main bad guy here – but ThinkGeek can’t license from them without acknowledging that said license obligates FOX to pursue non-licensed sellers. That is part of the basis of a licensing agreement, part of which usually says something to the effect of “Hey, we’re going to pay you a bunch of money to be the official seller of this item representing intellectual property you own, and to protect that investment, you’re obligated to go after anyone else who tries.” That’s just what licensing is, so ThinkGeek’s fingerpointing at FOX and trying to act the innocent is disingenuous at best.

I wrote a post some years ago titled “Why I ❤ Crafters (and Other Artists) And You Should Too” in which I explained why I have so much respect and admiration for them. Towards the end of it, I wrote “…surround yourself with those who are creative and bring a little more beauty into existence, and you will find it easier to do the same.” I still very much believe that and it is advice I’d like to see ThinkGeek take to heart.

*Update April 9, 2013* So ThinkGeek has corrected themselves and now state that the manufacturer they worked with on the hats is actually the license holder. However, I still stand by what I said — the best that ThinkGeek can claim is that they decided to bring a mass-produced and inferior product to market that directly competes with what was offered by the geek crafting community. And they did so with a company that makes all of it’s money off of licenses, Ripple Junction — and I believe there is still information to be had about that company’s role in the cease and desist letters that went out. It’s extremely common for license holders to push to have C&Ds sent out to products they view as infringing on their license.

*Update April 10, 2013* See here

 

Fear, Truth, and Consequences

I’m tired of senseless death. It will always exist, but after this past year I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed by it. After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had felt the grip of cold fear as I thought about my own children. Every parent knows fear — it’s part of having children. Afraid for their safety, afraid you could somehow fail them…the list goes on. And as parents, we all know that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best.

Because in the end, the truth about parenthood is that you are not in control. When it comes to your child, you can guide, inform, punish, and influence — but you can’t be in control of another person. No matter how much your child is a chip off the ol’ block – they are their own person and as a parent you need to come to terms with that sooner or later. And most of all, we can’t completely control what the world does to our kids. So we try our best to prepare them for whatever the world throws at them and hope with all our heart that it’s enough.

Fear is not a terribly useful emotion in the modern world. It can be great to help you anticipate and react if you’re in a life-threatening situation, but in a (hopefully) rational, civilized society it’s often counterproductive. It short-circuits our reason and makes us respond on an emotional, sub-rational level, so in essence, it makes us give up all the advantages of evolution and civilization and turns us into small, quivering creatures hiding from a Great Big Bad Thing and wanting more than anything for it to all go away.

It’s even worse when that fear is felt by a group or society, as fear is possibly the worst possible basis for public policy. Look at any bad law, policy, or government action, and at its core you will find fear. Fear of people who look and act differently, fear of change, fear of a lack of control, fear of what we don’t understand.

The events in Newtown brought this into sharp relief for me. What I felt, what I saw, and what I read all boiled down to fear: fear for the safety of loved ones; fear that the government will take away guns…and fear that they won’t; fear of the unknowable and unexplainable.

Hell, TV news folks interviewing elementary age school kids who were present in the school when the shooting happened was driven by fear of ‘losing the story’ to someone else and fear of losing ratings. And why do we need news interviews from those personally involved in a tragedy? I think it’s driven by the public’s fear that those in power won’t tell us the whole story, so we want the news channels to do those interviews so we have the “real” story.

And what does all that fear give us? Besides the rush of adrenaline and the worry, not a whole lot. After September 11th, 2001, what did it get us? Two wars, the deaths of countless more innocents, the Patriot Act, a huge increase in debt and a national malaise because I think at some level we all understand nothing we’d done made any real, meaningful change.

So is fear bad? Not in and of itself, nor could we in any healthy way stop feeling the emotion. What’s bad is letting a 200-million year old part of our brain trump the human neocortex (which is only about 195,000 years old).

What we can do is reclaim the birthright of our forebrains and the fruits of thousands of years of civilization and try to actually make the world a better place…not with our emotions, but with our brains. (Yes, at heart, I’m a hippie — deal with it)

Do guns need to be banned? I don’t know – generally speaking I would prefer most people didn’t have them. I certainly think we need to put a bit more emphasis on the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment. Certain types of guns clearly have no place in a sane, civilized world. For those that do have guns, the requirements for their ownership and use should be at least as stringent as other dangerous items. Currently there seems to be more sophisticated and onerous controls over decongestants than guns (at least in my state) and that does strike me as out of balance. But again, I don’t know what the solution is, as too often both sides argue out of (and to incite) fear. Guns are not “special” — they are merely another method for producing destruction. If we can regulate bombs, tasers, knives, and yes, even cars, we can and should regulate guns.

I also know that this country needs a much, much better mental health system. No one can tell me that a 24-year old shooting up an elementary school is the act of a sane, well-balanced individual. The issue of him having a rifle and two handguns should be secondary to why he was unbalanced in the first place. No, of course, we can’t stop everyone from snapping and going on a rampage – but shouldn’t the general mental welfare of everyone be one of the most important things we should aim for? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal by itself?

But more than anything, we need an answer as a species, as a country, and as individuals to learn to deal with the reptilian part of our brain and the fear it injects in our thinking. We need to be mindful of when we are letting it drive our decisions and work to overcome it with the only thing we have going — our intelligence and reason. In essence, we all need to apply the same type of thinking a good parent does — we need to remember that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best. And realize that any control we think we have is likely a not-terribly-helpful illusion.

Not much of an answer, I know. But what we’re doing is obviously not working, and repeating the same mistakes over and over again is not very likely to change anything for the better.

Which of course brings us to the truest and best thing Frank Herbert (or perhaps anyone really) ever wrote:

The Litany Against Fear

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Let’s not meet in the middle… Political deadlock and how money changes everything

Ahh, the heady warm-breeze of overheated election year politics. And amidst all the claims and counter-claims, many talking heads and regular citizens bemoan the lack of civility and the intransigent deadlock of the extremes of both parties working against each other. These protestations are almost always concluded with a sad shaking of the head and a fervent call to embrace the ideological middle ground so that some progress can be made.

Horseshit.

Okay, not the lack of civility — that really is a problem and more on that later. What I’m calling “horseshit” is this belief that the ideological extremes of both parties are holding us all hostage. Hell, even Scientific American gave this some credibility with their interview of researcher Jonathan Haidt (who recently published a book titled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.”). Mr. Haidt’s view is that the country has been splitting apart into different cultures and that is the source of all our woes. Some quotes from the interview:

But as the culture war between left and right was heating up, and as the two parties were completing their 30 year process of segregating into a pure liberal party and a pure conservative party, I began to see left and right in this country as being like different cultures.

and

Ultimately, the solutions to our polarization and political dysfunction will be legal and institutional changes which reduce the power of extremists in both parties, and which force the parties back to their traditional strategy of competing for the middle, rather than the strategy, used since 2004, of pleasing one’s own base.

I find a number of faults with his assumptions and his proposed solutions, but I do think they’re examples of what many well-meaning folks believe.

I think the easiest way to start examining this is to look at the Democratic and Republican parties and the ideological underpinnings of the American voter. First, let’s see where the numbers are for registered voters by party identity, according to the folks at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

As you can see, we’re all divided, by party identification, into roughly thirds. This isn’t just true now, but has been roughly true for many, many decades. Democrats, while generally enjoying an advantage in sheer numbers, have lost a few, while independents have grown and Republicans have remained fairly constant. How does this tie into the above points by Mr. Haidt? Well, if the major political parties were truly becoming more polarized, we’d expect to see the numbers above for both parties dropping and independents increasing as the moderates in both parties felt excluded and move to an independent status. That does not seem to be the case at all.

But let’s not get stuck on party labels – after all, the ideologies of the parties can change over time. Let’s look at a breakdown of American voters by ideology and let’s throw some more years in there. This is from the American National Election Studies:

Again, you see some fluctuations, but nothing really out of a fairly confined range. The only real datapoint that stands out to me is the number who reported “Don’t know / Haven’t thought about it” which had a significant jump from 1980 through 1990 before settling down again up until 2008. Maybe what some folks are seeing is that since roughly the middle of George H. W. Bush’s administration, people have become less apathetic? Many of the media talking heads voicing distaste for partisan discourse are age 40 and up – might they just have been strongly influenced by becoming aware of politics in their 20s and 30s when strong ideological beliefs had a momentary lull? I’m not certain, but it does seem like it might be a contributing factor.

So where is this unprecedented great divide that’s breaking our country apart? Party identification hasn’t really changed. Self-identification to slices of the ideological spectrum don’t seem to have shifted much. If you can bear with me for one more table, let’s look at the strength of independents compared to partisans of both parties. Again, this from the American National Election Studies:

This is perhaps the biggest refutation possible of the idea that partisan ideology is the source of gridlock or pretty much anything else. From 1952 up until 1964 we saw those strongly partisan as fairly stable and then in 1966 it fell off a cliff and never really recovered. Weakly leaning partisans however saw a pretty big fall off in 1986, and again pretty consistent downward trend. Meanwhile, those leaning independent started a steady, but occasionally fluctuating rise starting in 1972, while those solidly independent have remained fairly stable with but small bump between 1966 and 1982.

BTW, for those wondering what might have started these trends, there were probably a number of factors. My guess would be changes that started post-1964 were as a result of the Civil Rights Act causing a major restructuring of voting blocks (Southern whites leaving the Democratic Party, progressive Republicans reclassifying themselves as independent and occasionally voting Democratic), disaffection amongst some former Republicans after the loss of Barry Goldwater, and then further pushes towards the middle in the post-Watergate era.

According to the numbers above, we are actually MORE nonpartisan now than we have been in 60 years. The combined independent and leaning independent blocks have gone from 26% to 40% in that timeframe. And ideologically, the numbers haven’t budged significantly in 40 years. America has maintained the basic ideological patterns, while the numbers of those strongly identifying as the extremes of the major parties has decreased. I won’t bother with another table, but if you’re interested, here’s a page showing degrees of party identification for the past 60 years. Neither ideological or partisan extremes are the issue at all.

Why can’t we get anything done? That really is the million dollar question.The cheap and easy-to-answer question (which has probably already occurred to some of you): Okay, so the voters haven’t changed, but what about our elected officials? This is where it gets interesting – by nearly every serious measure devised, the U.S. Congress is more sharply polarized along partisan lines than it has been in a very long time.

There’s lots of people who have sought to measure, quantify, and analyze this partisan divide in Congress. From the voteview blog (some of the folks best at this), comes what should hopefully be my last chart:

What this shows is the size of the partisan divides in the U.S. House and the Senate. You’ll notice that since 1977, the US House has gotten more divided every single year since then (other than  brief plateaus between 1985 and 1987, and 2005 and 2009). The US Senate, on the other hand, has only been on an uninterrupted rise since 2003.

We have a country that has essentially remained unchanged in terms of our ideological and partisan makeup for 60 years, and yet within that same time-frame, our elected officials have indeed become more divided. This makes absolutely no sense, right?! It would seem almost surreal to say that in a country with a representative democracy, we’d see this kind of split between what the voters believe and how their representatives operate.

Surreal or not though, that’s exactly where we are. …at least in terms of a division existing between both parties. But is it their ideology/partisanship that is really to blame, or something else?

Whenever I think about this, and similar stories have been mentioned a number of times this election cycle, I always think about how it used to be. Speaker of the House (and Massachusetts liberal) Tip O’Neill would indeed have a regular end-of-the-week drink with President (and Republican Golden Idol) Ronald Reagan. Can you imagine current GOP House Speaker Boehner sitting back with President Obama, having a drink and just talking? Me neither. And, after a lifetime of being an inside-the-Beltway-brat, my understanding is that was just how it was done throughout much of our nation’s modern history.

Perhaps more importantly was how opposing partisans worked together. Liberal Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy regularly worked with some of the most conservative Senators like Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, and many others (and they with him) to draft legislation. In fact, to get anything done back in the day, what had to happen was that the extremes had to talk to each other, come up with a workable plan both could support, and the moderates in the middle would follow. The solutions never really came from the middle, they came from both extremes hashing out a compromise and the middle following suit.

What caused the shift away from this compromise-based approach to legislation? After all, this is clearly an effect and not a cause. If the voters aren’t the problem, and the past shows us that the extremes used to be instrumental in forging consensus, what changed? There’s a number of causes, but I think it comes down to the following, in order of priority:

  1. Money: It really does seem to me to be the root of all evil. It’s tied directly to the influence of lobbyists, the revolving door between Capitol Hill (for both those elected and their staff) and the lobbyists, the cost of elections, and all the other ways those with power use money to generate influence, power, and more money. It is the only force capable of the complete subversion of the will of the people we see from both parties. Just since 1998, we’ve seen the amount reported being spent on lobbying go from $1.44 Billion dollars a year to $3.33 Billion in 2011. It’s more than doubled in the space of 13 years. And since the number of lobbyists has stayed steady (even dropping in recent years), where do you think all that money is going? And as the hunt for money for elections has heated up, what legislator can afford to be seen compromising with their colleagues across the aisle? The cherry on this little shitty sundae is of course the Citizen’s United decision which further eroded what minor checks there were in place to control the effect of money in politics.
  2. Redistricting: Most people aren’t even aware of how this process occurs. In most states, after the decennial census, state legislators revise the congressional districts, often subject to approval by the state’s governor. To do this in a partisan manner is called gerrymandering, as it is quite easy to, for example, move two congressional representatives from an opposing party into the same district or redraw the district’s boundaries to make the seat harder for the opposing party to hold. That was gerrymandering 1.0. The current version is far more insidious — it basically comes down to a gentleman’s agreement to keep the districts as strongly partisan as possible, thus ensuring easy elections for both parties (for more on the problem and possible solutions, see Fairvote.org’s resources on this). And because both parties are doing this, no one says anything. Some states (only six to be precise) have independent bodies do the redistricting, but as these bodies are often appointed through bipartisan action, it doesn’t really change much. This is the power of incumbency taken to a ridiculous and ultimately damaging extreme. Fixing this would work far better and more democratically than something like term limits. Honestly, all it would take is a truly independent body that relied exclusively on a straightforward software application to parse the census data and, following the federal guidelines (these are federal elections after all), redraw the districts. Interestingly enough, many such software programs exist already — used by both parties to ensure their re-elections. If you want to take a detailed look at what exactly this would mean, check out this Daily Kos piece on nonpartisan redistricting.
  3. The media: With the rise of 24-hour news channels, “news” has become big business. And they’ve got a lot of time to fill. This, far more than the Internet, has been what really killed newspapers, and the traditional role of journalists along with it. It’s true that the Internet does make it harder for newspapers to capture eyeballs, but they’d already been losing them to TV for years. With the cable news networks, newspapers not only lost subscribers, they lost their relevance in being the “first” with the news as well as all their journalistic integrity. Quality of newspaper coverage has generally been trending downward in quality because it’s very hard for cogent, reasoned analysis to compete with the immediate timeliness and flash of TV or Internet news sources. And rather than falling back on what made them special and unique, newspapers seem intent on a race to the bottom. The result, more superficial coverage that pretends to be news and is actually just reciting talking points, which either with or without partisan spin is not the same as “journalism.”

The second issue above is the easiest to address and fix. The first is definitely a little more difficult, as every previous effort to contain the power and influence of money in politics has found. However, it still should be able to be made better than it is now. The third issue is not fixable from the outside in my opinion. I do remain optimistic though that it will be fixed…somehow.

In the end, we have the government we deserve, as it was still, however imperfectly, elected. We’re all victims and we’re all to blame, and no one can fix it except us. Sucks, huh? But not surprising. Welcome to representative democracy. Changes in election laws, campaign financing and technology have created a vacuum that allows money to have a greater and greater effect on not only elections, but the legislative and governing processes that occur afterwards.

But it can be fixed. As stated and shown above, the American public still contains roughly the same distribution of ideologies. We know what worked before in terms of progress coming from ideas and compromises by the extremes of both parties. In short, we know why it used to work and is now broken. The only thing left to do is figure out the details of how we get back to there from here.

Note: For those who fault the above analysis because it only looks at the partisan and ideological leanings of registered voters instead of the populace at large, too bad. If you don’t at least register to vote and then make your way to the voting booth, guess what? Your opinion doesn’t matter. Apathy is not a viable political philosophy.

Happy New Year — Now Can We Get This One Right, Please?

So, I was thinking about an end of year post where I would do my best to go about cataloging all the joys and sorrows of the year. But you know what, fuck 2011. It doesn’t deserve it, and it didn’t earn it. The economy? Meh. The political climate? Meh. We lost a bunch of dictators but also lost Steve Jobs,Václav Havel, Christopher Hitchens, and a bunch of other really cool folks, so I think that all washes out to a “meh” as well.

But 2012? I’m not sure if it’s going to be good or bad, but it at least should be interesting. Presidential elections here in the U.S., Olympics over in London, a Mayan-not-really-predicted-they-just-ran-out-of-numbers apocalypse — all should provide at least a few moments that rise above “meh.”

I make no resolutions — being of the school that if you only resolve to become better than you are once a year, you’re doing it wrong — but I do have certain hopes and aspirations for the year that I’d like to share:

  • Obviously I’d like a year that ends with no new wars and hopefully a few less. As one of my personal heroes Issac Asimov wrote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” and if after thousands of years of civilization we can’t find a better way to resolve our differences, well then what the hell are we doing?
  • I’d like 2012 to be the year when President Obama finds wherever he’s lost his balls and learns how to say “no” to both the Republicans and the Democrats on the Hill occasionally. My trust in Obama is not as bright and shiny as it was at the beginning of his administration, but I still believe of all those running, I feel safest with the country in his hands. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Hopefully “Candidate Obama” shows up and sticks around through his second term.
  • I’d like to see fewer movements (whether Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street) and more regular people getting off their butts and becoming educated and involved about their own government. Think of it this way — presidential elections are the “gateway drug” to civic responsibility and involvement. I really don’t want to hear one more person complain about 1) the government 2) taxes or 3) politicians if they’re not going to bother to read up on the issues (and yes, reading MUST be involved – watching things on TV or the Internet doesn’t count) and vote in every single election they can. Here in Virginia that’s every year — I wish more states were like that. Helps keep folks in the habit of giving a damn (which in my experience is indeed a habit that can be fallen out of just as easily into). Oh, and no more talking about term limits — that’s just lazy. It’s like saying “I don’t want to vote and the system is broken, so let’s get rid of everyone because I can’t be bothered.”
  • I’d like 2012 to be the year that “entertainment news” and “entertainment journalism” become obsolete terms. I don’t care which actor is schtupping which actress (or other actor). I don’t care which actress or actor is on drugs, in recovery, or “reportedly out of control.” I don’t care about their diets, their fitness “secrets,” or their deep and abiding concern over [insert issue here]. NONE of this is news, none of this is important, and no 1/2 hour show, let alone entire channel should be devoted to covering what artists do WHEN THEY AREN’T EVEN CREATING ART. Oh, and if you still read People magazine, the National Enquirer or go to Perez Hilton more than just accidentally, well no disrespect, but I hate you. If you want to find out about what movie might be made or have some interest in the business of entertainment, well there is Variety and similar coverage and that’s fine, but I’d truly love if all the rest disappeared.
  • Can we all agree that now being well into the second decade of this millennium, some things should stop being an issue? I mean, let’s be a mature society and agree on some stuff, e.g.
    • The Earth is much, much older than 6,000 years, we all evolved from less complex lifeforms, and like stars, black holes, galaxies, and all the rest of it, we weren’t created by anything other than stupendous chance and a universe that was cool enough to come up with both us AND digital watches.
    • Science is the single most useful intellectual tool the human race has come up with, and is by definition, the only way we as a society and a planet can move forward. I think we gave all the religions enough of a shot at it, and to be frank, their record is pretty awful.
    • Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Male, female, or transgender doesn’t matter. That’s it — pretty much all there is to say about it.
    • All those illegal aliens in the U.S.? Yeah, we can’t ship them all home — not only would it be morally wrong in some instances, but it’s just a physical and logistical impossibility. So please quit using the debate on illegal immigration to further your own bigotry about *legal* immigration. If we can’t, with a straight face, tell the rest of the world “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” — well then we should probably not have bothered creating this country in the first place.
    • Flying cars,jet packs, portal guns and teleporters. I want them all, and I want them this year.
    • In the end, it doesn’t matter what the size of our government’s debt is or how much millionaires get taxed. What matters is that we quit squabbling like a pack of hyenas over a corpse and start accepting the fact that as Americans (or even just citizens of the world) we have certain inalienable rights and certain unavoidable obligations to ourselves, our neighbors, the planet and future generations.

And really, that’s it. Honestly if any single item on that list came to pass, I’d be pretty damn happy. To all of you who read my sporadic and seemingly randomly posted blog entries or my eclectic and chatty Twitter stream, I say thank you and I wish your own wishes and aspirations come true this next year. Especially if any of you are really set on me winning the lottery or getting a nice big fat contract to write some books.

While 2012 is being bandied about by select kooks as the end of the world, it — like every year — is the beginning of a brand new world, and hopefully it is one of our own careful and thoughtful making.

I’d like to end this with a special thank you to all of you who made this year quite spectacular for me personally. That would include my wife Kathy (who has managed to put up with me for 18 years), my kids, and the most amazing friends anyone could ever hope to have: Kylee, Jess, and Ruth. I love you all.