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.

Walking on Water

Apple Computer. Barack Obama.

Wondering where I’m going with this? What do these two have in common? High expectations . . . I would even venture to say, extraordinarily high expectations. Perhaps even unreasonably high expectations?

I am 40-years old and I was around for the original Mac vs. PC war, if you can even call it that. Apple was Betamax to Microsoft’s VHS (see, I told you – even my metaphors are old) — a technically superior alternative that seemed to never get the traction it deserved (and yes, I know that Betamax went on to a long life in professional video circles, but it disappeared out of people’s homes). Steve Jobs was thrown-over for a guy famous for selling sugar water. Apple languished, even having to rely on it’s old enemy Microsoft for a deal to help it limp along. Then Jobs came back, the iPod came out, OS X came out, it switched to Intel processors, and then came the iPhone. Suddenly Apple was not only a going concern, it was profitable, it was leading not just one industry, but several. Apple users could hold their heads high once again. Now of course, they also have the iPad, which if you count it as a computer (which I certainly do), has lead Apple to not only be successful, but the single largest manufacturer of computers in the US.

So when Apple devoted their homepage to advertising a big announcement yesterday, the rumor mill started grinding away with fresh fervor. A music streaming cloud service? An iOS update? Something that they’d managed to slip by everyone until now? Beatles on iTunes? Wait, what?! The Beatles haven’t been a band for decades, half the members of the band are no longer with us – how the hell could adding their music to iTunes be relevant or considered important by anyone? Then the Wall Street Journal broke the actual story last night – the announcement was going to be about the Beatles coming to iTunes.

This morning, as the official word came down from Cupertino, I saw my Twitter stream fill with reaction — most of which seemed to be landing on a spectrum of emotional response somewhere between “meh” to “Oh, come on, who cares?”

Well, as it happens, I do. I will likely buy some of the Beatles songs – I have my vinyl collection, and somehow never seemed to get around to buying the CDs, and because I believe in supporting artists (even those as rich as Sir Paul), I don’t pirate music. But that’s not the reason I really care. The reason I care are my kids —  my 8 year-old son and my 2 year-old daughter. I seriously doubt either of them will ever buy a CD. To them, it’s already a technology dinosaur. My son’s iPod Nano is filled with music that I’ve put on there for him – hundreds and hundreds of songs across multiple genres and from multiple eras. My son likes Johnny Cash and Tom Petty just as much as Bowling For Soup and They Might Be Giants. And I want him, and his sister, to experience the Beatles as well.

The Beatles were progenitors of so much that has happened in music, from their start 50 years ago. They were only together as a band for 10 years! And yet everyone knows who they are, and they are an influence, in one way or another, of pretty much anyone who has ever picked up an instrument and wanted to play a song for somebody else.

Will the Beatles being on iTunes change the face of computing, technology, music, or anything else? No. But will it mean that the generation of my kids and all the generations after them will have a better chance to discover something wonderful? I think so. As Jon Stewart has spent a bit of time alluding to recently, the current environment for public debate and news is an overheated, blazing ball of hot air that somehow manages to shed no light on anything. Have we become so jaded that everything has to rise to a messiah-returning-level to even get 15 seconds of our attention? We’re like baseball fans suddenly wanting our team to hit every pitch out of the ballpark with the bases somehow magically loaded for each at bat.

And that brings me to poor President Obama. Much has been made of the shift of power on the Hill to the GOP and the rise of the Tea Party. Will Obama pull a Clinton and seek to “triangulate” his way forward? Or will he pull an FDR, who said the following in 1936 as he ran for re-election:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. … Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today.  They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred!

Hmm, that certainly seems rather fitting, doesn’t? As a Democrat, and as a progressive, I hope against hope that he chooses the path of FDR. But I also know that is not the type of man Obama is. And that’s okay. I supported him early on in the primaries against Hillary Clinton because I believed he was a liberal pragmatist, a.k.a a progressive, and I voted for him in the general election, not because I believed he was some sort of liberal messiah who would guide us to the socialist promised land, but because after 8 years of Dullard-in-Chief, I wanted a President who was thoughtful and considered in his responses. I wanted a President that would not only lead, but would lead by example.

Am I 100-percent happy with Obama’s term so far? No, I’m not. But do I think there is anyone out there who could have done better? No — and I still believe he’s the best person to have in the Oval Office right now and for the next six years. To all my fellow travelers within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party who have been bitching and moaning about Obama and will he or won’t he cave on X or Y, I ask the following: Did you think that the work towards the country you want ended on Election Day 2008? Did we elect Obama to carry us forward or to give us the opportunity to move ourselves forward? Where were you when the Democrats on the Hill were adding flotsam and jetsam to health care reform? Where was your approbation when the Democratically-controlled Senate sat on its hands as the House passed bill after bill that would have created jobs, true financial reform or a national green energy policy? Where were your howls of frustration that both the House and the Senate could not overturn DADT or that they refused to allow Obama to close Guantanamo Bay?

In short, while he is President, Obama is still just one man, and leads just a third of the federal government. Will he AND the Democrats on the Hill need to compromise to move anything through Congress? Undoubtedly. But is that a sign of failure? Compromise has become a dirty word in Washington and indeed across the country, but the only way to move forward as a country is to compromise. No defeat or victory is ever the last in politics, no matter how much the 24/7 noise I mean “news” machine builds it up. To go back to my baseball analogy, be happy when we get on base and don’t boo whenever it isn’t a home run.

So that’s how I see Apple and Obama linked — by a shared perception that anything less than “insanely great” equals failure. It’s a fine narrative for the media to use to fill in the spaces between ads, but it’s not reality.

I mean, come on, it’s not like anyone is claiming to be bigger than Jesus, right? 😉

Hacking The Body Politic

The intersection (or lack thereof) between geeks and politics

I’m going to start off by apologizing. I’m about to do something I hate to do, because I find it to be a cliché – I’m starting off a piece of writing with a definition. I only do it because I will be addressing several meanings of the word, and rather than stating it all mixed in with the text, I figured I’d tee it up here right at the top.

politics: noun (Etymology: Greek politika, from neuter plural of politikos political; Date: circa 1529)

1 a : the art or science of government; b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy; c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government
2
: political actions, practices, or policies;
3 a
: political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government); b : political life especially as a principal activity or profession c : political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices;
4
: the political opinions or sympathies of a person;
5 a
: the total complex of relations between people living in society; b : relations or conduct in a particular area of experience especially as seen or dealt with from a political point of view <office politics> <ethnic politics>

Sorry! Okay, now on to defining “geek” . . . Just fooling! Really, that’s just a tar baby I’m not going to rassle with. Anyway, for a word that gets thrown around so much, those are a lot of definitions!

Of course, politics is a very topical word right now as we’re about to come up on another Election Day, and yet another occasion where I’ll probably look around afterward and say “Bu..but, we’re smarter than that, I swear!” (Note: I’m not saying all liberals are smart or that all smart people are liberal — far from it. More just that smart people on either side of the aisle seem to be a vanishing breed.)

Every Election Day highlights personally for me another aspect of my multi-faceted geekdom. In addition to the techie, movie, foodie, and other types of geek I seem to express, I’m also a huge political geek – both by having been involved on a more intimate-than-usual level and through my own personality and interests. What always has struck me as shocking is how few other types of geeks crossover into politics as well. I mean I am used to a certain level of ambivalence to politics from the general population (amazing what randomly knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote for somebody will reveal), but generally geeks of all stripes seem to eschew politics more strongly than is usual.

Why is that?

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years — as much in an effort to reconcile different strains of my own personality as to explain any broader social trend. I don’t think I’ve got all the answers (*gasp!* Yes, you all now have that in writing), but I do think I have some outline of the issues. The following are some generalizations, and are to be taken as such. I’m describing what I’ve seen in my own experience, not the individual and unique snowflake that is you or anyone in particular. 🙂

  1. Geeks tend to be introverts
  2. Geeks tend to avoid conflict, except in certain controlled or vaguely ritualized circumstances
  3. Geeks tend to shy away from anything that is too fuzzy or ill-defined (entirely subjective of course)
  4. Geeks have few good “geek” role-models to look to in public office (More politicians are like the former actor Ronald Reagan than the former nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter).
  5. Geeks see politics as nothing but a beauty contest/popularity contest and we all know how geeks fare in those, right? 🙂
  6. Even if a geek is willing to be engaged and active in politics, the underlying political structures are messy, inefficient, and not prone to rigid analysis (we all love analysis in some form or another, right?)

Why is this a problem? Why do geeks need to be involved in politics? Because geeks have what the system needs to work! Think about it!

  1. Geeks are passionate (my pseudo-definition of “geek” = passionate about a topic beyond reason)
  2. Geeks tend to be smart  (not necessarily “educated” as I refuse to say the two equate) and interested in the world around them.
  3. Geeks are problem-solvers – we’re all about hacking something to get it to do what needs to be done (my pseudo-definition of “hacking” = an elegant solution to an inelegant problem)
  4. Geeks are creative. This can be debated, but I stand by it — hands down, all the geeks I know are far more creative (in a broad sense) than others
  5. Geeks are good at analysis. We like details. Hell, whether you’re talking about video games, movies, comic books, or food — every geek culture is built on the analysis and debate of minutiae that nobody else pays any attention to.

Geeks, by and large, have the tools to be a force in politics, just seemingly not the will. I’ve seen and heard it a hundred times, “I don’t talk politics,” or “Why bother? It’s just politics” or something similar. This from the same people who will have no problem debating Kirk vs. Picard for the 173rd time, or who will happily engage in holy war over how the latest film adaption got everything wrong from the comic book. It’s really one of the only times I feel disappointed in my fellow geeks.

The rules by which we govern ourselves as a society, and the process by which those rules are discussed and created, are arguably the most important subjects we can debate. No matter how big a fan we are, who is directing The Hobbit, where it’s being filmed, or who will be starring in it are not that important against that larger backdrop. More fun to discuss sometimes certainly, and by no means am I saying we should stop — I’m simply saying we need to carve a little time and mental cycles out of our day to focus on this other stuff too.

The media is currently at a fevered hum spinning out new political coverage, chewing it up and regurgitating it back-out – then saying they don’t like the look of the dog’s breakfast that it is, and starting it all over again. We have the Tea Party, about which much has been said and written, but about which not much is known — mostly because it simply exists to fill the vacuum that was left after the Democrat’s wins in 2006 and 2008, and it as much a media creation as an honest and reasoned ideological reaction to anything going on. To put it in the parlance of a particular geek subset – Obama winning was like Superman killing Luthor, Darkseid, and Braniac all at once, and the writers needed to create a new villain to keep the narrative going.

You know what’s missing from what I described above? Reasoned debate. Honest exchange of differing opinions. Rational compromises that move us closer to shared goals. In short, all stuff that geeks are better suited than most to contribute to.

Yes, politics is messy. Yes, it can be filled with the kind of internecine exchanges that demonstrate the worst of ourselves. And yes, there are a 1,001 reasons not to become involved.

But as geeks, I ask you this – when presented with an opportunity to make the world what it should be (United Federation of Planets, flying cars, cures for cancer, jet packs, lightsabers, the whole shebang), how can we refuse? Do you want to continue to live in a world where celebrity is a more valuable asset than knowledge? Do you want to live in a world where glib easy answers are accepted because no one stood up and said “That’s not right!”

Or do you want to live in a world where merit truly is rewarded, where the opportunity exists to invent our future not reinvent our past, and where those rules we govern ourselves by are arrived at through intelligent discourse and debate, and yes, sometimes compromise. How you think we should arrive at such a world will largely shape where you fall on the political spectrum, and honestly I don’t care if you land on the same place I do. I do care about whether you’re on that spectrum to begin with – because otherwise you’re letting other people decide your fate. All our geek heroes, in fine Joseph Campbell tradition, helped to shape their own fates – that’s why their stories captured our attention and interest. Sure, there was always stuff outside their control, but that’s what makes the story interesting.

So, what can you do? Well, I’ll make it easy for now — Go vote tomorrow. If you haven’t followed the candidates in your area up until now, spend some time researching on their websites and Google tonight and then go vote. Even if your candidate isn’t forecast to win. Just go vote. Really.

After tomorrow? Well, I will be writing more about this in upcoming articles. Essentially (and hopefully!) providing a series of geek-centric tutorials on how to be politically informed and involved. Think of it as cutting through the crappy GUI that gets put on politics, learning to get to the command line, and being given root on the political process.

Again, whether you’re liberal or conservative is immaterial – it’s about being informed and involved. And as I’ve discovered, geeks have a wonderful ability to be a transformative force on so many things, I’m hoping the same holds true here.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Gandhi  (Philosophizer, activist, and honestly, a bit of a geek himself)

Oh, and for those looking for a few chuckles, read my Election Day post from 2008:  A Portrait of a Poll Worker

The Weakness of the GOP

First, a few quotes:

“The weak are the most treacherous of us all. They come to the strong and drain them. They are bottomless. They are insatiable. They are always parched and always bitter. They are everyone’s concern and like vampires they suck our life’s blood.”  – Bette Davis

“You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“A weak mind is like a microscope, which magnifies trifling things but cannot receive great ones. ” – Lord Chesterfield

“What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. ” – Friedrich Nietzsche (using this quote despite a general rule that anyone who quotes Nietzsche is an a-hole)

So what’s all this focus on weakness and how does it connect to the GOP? After all, the Republican Party is supposed to be the party of manly men (and mamma bears), strong on defense, strong on the war on drugs, and illegals, and sex, etc., etc. and it constantly attacks the left for its own weaknesses and for encouraging weakness in others through a ‘nanny state’ and the encouragement of a pervasive culture.

The genesis for this post was two issues that have recently received some attention, and as usual, the media, bloggers, pundits, et. al seem to have missed an important point. To wit:  the GOP’s hot issues are all based out of an assumption of America’s weakness, not it’s strength. Furthermore, this is a trend that has been growing stronger on the right since 9/11.

To begin with, let’s look at the issues involving the rights of homosexuals. By denying the legal right of marriage to same sex couples, the entire GOP stance is built on “protecting marriage.” That most sacred institution which so many of the GOP leadership has entered into multiple times. That most holy of unions; honored by Americans with a divorce rate, according to some estimates, of 50% percent for first marriages, 67% for second and 74% for third marriages. A societal institution that is so important that, depending on study, it is estimated that 26–50% of men and 21–38% women commit adultery in their lifetime. In this case, I would not look so askance at claims that marriage is such an important institution if it could be shown we actually behaved as if it was a centerpiece of our civilization.

Also, there’s the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy affecting the GLBT community’s ability to openly serve in our nation’s military. Why is this an issue? A good example of the thinking behind it is referenced in letters like this one. We are told DADT helps “protect” our troops. Evidently we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known, but all that can be put at risk by a small minority of gay soldiers — who knew that gays had superpowers that could defeat an entire army?! I mean obviously countries like Russia, Israel, Germany, and the U.K. that allow homosexuals to serve are going to be pushovers for whoever comes along with the butchest fighting force.

It also strikes me that in both the case of gay marriage and gay military service, the arguments used are eerily similar to those used to justify making interracial marriages illegal and for keep the armed services racially segregated. For all those conservatives out there who want to “roll back the clock” on legal protections of groups, one has to wonder exactly where they want to stop. All in all, it seems that the GOP stance on all the issues surrounding the GLBT community focus on, as usual, fear and ignorance while masquerading as an argument for strength. If the GOP has any faith (they seem big on that, don’t they) in marriage, don’t you think it would make sense that it would be strong enough to stand up to some gays getting married? By seeking to ‘protect’ it — aren’t they really saying it is so weak and anemic that it needs protecting? For our military, which the GOP seems to support as long as said support involves buckets of money going to military contractors, is it really such so enervated that it can’t stand up to allowing gays (who are already in the military by the way) to openly serve? Since when does a lie make anyone or anything ‘strong?’

So, aside from that, what other display of weakness is in major evidence from the right? Most of you have probably guessed where I’m going with this: the ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’ To start out with, let’s get one thing straight — I don’t like Islam. Just like I don’t like Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, or Scientology. Religion is, and always has been, to me a short-circuiting of our reason and not something I personally choose to engage in. There are many Christians, Jews, and Muslims whom I like personally, and I regard their religious beliefs as a personal quirk, similar to knowing someone who regularly engages in the purchase of lottery tickets. Well, slightly different — I’ve seen people win at the lottery, still waiting to see a pic of one of my friends with the big guy upstairs.

Anyway, I just wanted to make it clear that I’ve got no horse in this race. And honestly, neither does anyone outside of New York City. So why do we all know about it? Because the very effective GOP talking points and their bullshithorn, aka Fox News. We’re all supposed to be mortally offended that Muslims want to built a community center in the rough general vicinity of the World Trade Center. Evidently, Americans are such fragile little daisies that an Islamic community center and place of worship is supposed to painfully remind us of the attacks of September 11, 2001 — despite the fact that the actions of those involved were far more closely tied to their ignorance than their religion.

The GOP — the same party that championed the flying of the Confederate Flag over South Carolina’s State Capitol (and everywhere else it seems) is now saying that to protect the sensibilities of all Americans, we shouldn’t allow Muslims a place of worship near the site of something terrible that happened, but nonetheless something that had nothing to do with Islam.

We might as well forbid those with dark hair or dark eyes from being near there. Or perhaps we should just stop Saudi Arabians from owning or building around the WTC? After all, most of the men who took over that plane were from Saudi Arabia. As it happens, many very expensive buildings are owned by various Saudi Arabian companies all around the WTC neighborhood. Of course, that would prove to be quite embarrassing for Fox News – the man who co-owns News Corp. with Rupert Murdoch is Saudi Arabian Prince Al-Waleed, and he’s not only invested in several properties in the area, he’s also helped fund the causes of the very Imam tied to the community center. I’m sure Fox will come up with a fair and balanced explanation of why this is all okay.

But more importantly, are we a nation of folks who hide? Are we a nation that is afraid to engage in a debate over what it means to be free? We took a shot on the chin nine years ago, but we have over 200 years of doing democracy better than anyone else. Over 200 years of religious freedom. And after many long, hard battles, we mostly have achieved some rough equality of race, creed, and gender. We have more work still to do, not less. The answer to terrorism is not to become terrorists ourselves, but to become even more what the terrorist of the world hate — a land of freedom and opportunity. Because only then can we roll back ignorance, and that ignorance is where our true weakness lies.

It is our ignorance that allows 1 in 5 to believe Obama is a Muslim. It is our ignorance that allows creationism and ‘intelligent design’ to be taught in schools like they had anymmore factual basis than the tooth fairy. It is our ignorance that forces us to treat people who disagree with us as inferior. Just as it was ignorance, not any specific religion, that led a group of cowardly terrorists to crash a plane into a building. It is ignorance that allows a small conniving minority to pull the emotional strings of an undereducated populace and get them to react foolishly under August’s blanket of moist heat.

The GOP would have us believe that with enough border fences, guns, and religious/sexuality/drug police, all will be well. They would have us believe that to stand up and embrace the progressive advancement of knowledge and liberty will lead to moral bankruptcy and a ‘fall from grace.’ But mostly, they play off the message that we all are weak and that our institutions and ourselves need to be protected against corruption — for while they trust the Goldman Sachs of the world to run themselves without government intervention, we who are actual citizens are evidently going to run off and join the Village People once gay marriage is allowed, become stoners with the legalization of marijuana, and we evidently are so weak, we will be offended by a place or worship for no logical reason.

On a personal and societal level, few things bother me more than willful ignorance. An honest mistake in judgment grown out of a lack of experience or knowledge is perfectly understandable, but to be wrong — willfully wrong in the face of evidence is the worst kind of weak cowardice. It means you have seen the truth and turned your back on it. That is where the GOP is today, that is the weakness of their message, and that is where they wish to ‘lead’ the rest of us to.

It truly amazes me how a group of people can claim to be patriotic and love this country and get it all so damn wrong. America is not great because of our military, our immigration controls, or our drug policies. We’re not great because we’re mostly straight, caucasian, or any specific religion. America is great because we truly were conceived in liberty and are dedicated to the idea that we are all equal, and deserving of equal opportunity. That is the strength Americans should embrace.

Where has all the news gone? (a.k.a WaPo is now CraPo), Part 1

Part 1 – Introduction and “News (sources) You Can Use”

I grew up in a very political, very news-oriented household. Unusually so, even for the well-educated and urbane suburbs of Washington, D.C. , and probably so for a lot of other places as well. My father would read at least a couple of papers a day, starting off with the Washington Post each morning. My mother read the paper and magazines, including Newsweek, and pretty much whatever else she could find. Myself, I started out reading the comics (one of my earliest memories), and even before my teenage years, I’d branched out to other sections of the paper. For a year or two, starting at about the age of 13, I even became obsessed with the Business section and tracking commodity and stock prices and how different stories would impact those values. We also watched the early local evening news, the national news (CBS of course) and my parents would stay up and watch the late local evening news.

It wasn’t until quite a bit later in life that I noticed that this was indeed unusual. However, I continued on thinking of TV and newspapers (and the media in general) as having some redeeming value – they served a valuable public good. If you were interested in a topic or issue, some reporter somewhere was covering it and if it was a big story, other reporters and papers would follow. And for most of my life, I would swear that’s how it actually worked during my formative years (’70s and ’80s). Yes, I know journalism wasn’t perfect, but I grew up in a town with a paper that had a national reputation; a paper that not only broke the story on Watergate, but broke national and local news on a seemingly regular basis. It was the paper of record when it came to Washington and the Federal government.

So why in the last six months have I not only given up only reading the newspaper (WaPo subscription canceled and barely even noticed, other than recycling bin is a helluva lot lighter) but for the most part, I’ve stopped even reading the Washington Post website? Why does leafing through Newsweek, which my parents still dutifully get, actually seem to make me feel ill? And why, other than for primary or election day coverage and other major events, do I rarely watch a single news program or channel anymore?

Well, because it stopped being news. I stopped my “habit” and yet I don’t consider myself any less informed about the facts related to current events. Before I go into anymore detail on why I find most news sources to be complete crap, I’ll describe how I do get my news now. First thing to know is that it takes some hunting around and I think the “perfect” solution is still in flux, but this is what works so far for current events:

  1. NPR – both my local radio station (88.5 WAMU) and the NPR website, which has some pretty well written stories published on the site (not just copies of audio!)
  2. My personalized iGoogle page, where I have the top headlines from the following RSS feeds: Google News “Top Stories“; Ars Technica, NY Times Home Page, Techdirt, Wired Top Stories, and yes, I still pull in the headlines from the Washington Post, but I haven’t clicked on one of those links in months.
  3. Twitter – this one was a bit of a surprise to me, but thanks to a global group of folks that I follow, I’ve heard about earthquakes thousands and thousands of miles away, and received countless tidbits of analysis and news items that I literally would not have seen otherwise. This works especially well if you follow folks that you don’t necessarily agree with, otherwise it’s just a circle jerk of the same thinks you already think or know . . . but that’s a subject for another post. (As I was writing this a 7.4 quake struck Indonesia – I found out about it on Twitter about ten minutes after it struck. First hit on Google news search wasn’t until 24 minutes.) For sites like Huffington Post, I don’t even interact with their websites — just wait to see what’s making its way around the twittersphere.
  4. Google News/Newsmap – Most folks reading this post are probably familiar with the Google News Aggregator, and it is indeed a great service, but the interface is poor – What stories are important? What stories do other people think are important? What’s new? What’s old? It’s all a bit of a hash. Which is why after running across it more than 5 years ago, I use this cool little app called newsmap, which I think is one of the most underrated items on the Internet net. Why? Because you can see the news as you never have before. Here’s the page that explains what it’s all about. Try it out for yourself and you’ll see.
  5. Various other social networking/social bookmarking sites: Slashdot, Digg, delicious, Reddit, etc. (every blue moon or so, I’ll actually find a useful news-related link on Facebook. Guess they somehow let that get by their “relevance filters.”)  I used to use these sites a lot more, but they all seem a little clunky now.[TANGENTIAL RANT: Hell, Twitter wins over them all if for no reason than there isn’t always some asshat posting “First!” and then the subsequent argument/discussion about posting “First” and the type of people who feel the need to post that, and then the subsequent discussion/argument about people who feel the need to comment on people posting “First”. Usually only ended by a couple dozen postings on the grammar/spelling failings of various posters or the invoking of Godwin’s law whenever someone compares someone else to Hitler. So glad to see that Web 2.0/3.0/*insert irrational number here* has risen so far above the behavior seen on every BBS, USENET group and mailing-list serve ever seen. END OF RANT]

What do all these sources have that the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the news on television doesn’t? Well, in the case of NPR it’s the straightforward nature of the reporting. Now those on the right will always claim there is a liberal bias on public radio, because you know they’re*whisper* publicly funded. However in my experience, they evidence no more liberal bias than reality does (as Mr. Colbert noted). From All Things Considered to Marketplace, I find out more information and quality analysis from public radio than from almost any other single source. Also, when opinion is offered, it is clearly labeled as such.

In the case of my personal news aggregation in iGoogle – it’s the flexibility and diversity I enjoy. With so many feeds, I get the information I’m interested in, as well as what I should be interested in.

With Twitter, as I mentioned, the diversity of views is wonderful and as it turns out, interesting people read interesting things and write interesting things about them. So if you follow interesting people (which I do!) than the rest takes care of itself.

With newsmap, I like it because it puts the news, and what people think is important, into perspective. On a big news day, whatever the story is will dominate the screen with the brightest colors. On a slow news day, it’s fascinating to see what pops up out of the primordial news ooze, seeking to gain our attention. It usually has something to do with sex, money or death it seems. Whenever we’re not given something specific to worry about, we do seem to enjoy finding new and uninteresting ways to focus on the first two and pretend we’re not afraid of the third while spending all of our money to avoid it.

As for the other sites listed, they used to be useful, and I’ll still occasionally find something worthwhile to read, but generally it’s the most slanted, biased pieces that get the most attention on those sites. (I’ll leave it to someone else to write the definitive piece talking about websites with “voting” mirroring the ideological extremism you see on the increase in elections – I’ll just offer the observation that everyone who does well on those sites generally plays to an ideological base, and those wishing to get votes consciously or subconsciously play to that awareness.)

Now that I’ve explained what I like specifically in my news sources, in Part 2 coming next week, I’ll explain what I find so horrible and soul-crushing about mainstream news sources. Here’s a hint: modern journalists (by and large) suck at their jobs, or work for organizations that no longer allow them to be good at it.

Do you have a favorite news source (mainstream or otherwise)? Would love to hear about it in the comments and why you like it!