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.

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%

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.

A taxing issue: Why California is being stupid

As some of you may have heard, California just enacted an Internet sales tax. Some states have already done so, and in difficult budgetary times, who can blame them – right? I mean, if you walk into a store and buy something, chances are you have to pay some sort of tax on it. And when it comes to budgetary difficulties, none of the other states can really hold a candle to California – I mean, they’re not just broke, they’re like super-broke. As it happens, if California were a country, its economy would be on the scale of Spain or Italy. So they’re like a broke 800-lb gorilla, and they’re turning to companies like Amazon and saying “Hey bub, pay up!” (okay, so now it’s a broke talking 800-lb gorilla — sue me and my overtaxed metaphors…and puns)

For me, the problems with what California (and other states) is doing were hammered home on my drive into work this morning and listening to this story on NPR’s Morning Edition. Take, for example, this quote from the piece:

California needs money and state officials say the new sales tax could bring in two to three hundred million dollars a year. Amazon wouldn’t be paying more in taxes, just collecting the sales tax on customer purchases and passing it on to the state just like brick-and-mortar retailers do now.

You’ll hear that refrain from the bricks-and-mortar retail folks all the time. In fact, Bill Dombrowski, the head of the California Retailers Association had this to add:

In California, that meant [Internet retailers] had a 10-percent, roughly,  price advantage every day of the year, and shoppers were turning our stores into showrooms and then going out and shopping on the Internet.

This is presented as an issue of fairness and how they’re not really picking on Amazon because Amazon wouldn’t be paying the taxes, just their customers.

BULLSHIT

This is simply those with a failed business model teaming up with desperate policy makers to with one hand stifle online retails sales while with the other hand filling state coffers with money that is not the state’s due. Hold on some will say — why doesn’t California or any other state deserve their slice of that sweet, sweet revenue? The answer is obvious – the states DO NOT support the infrastructure that allows those transactions to take place.

At their best, taxes are simply a method for any government to recover costs associated with supplying the benefits of government and infrastructure in a way that hopefully distributes the costs fairly.  You want roads? Fine, but they need to be paid for, and that means taxes. You want a water processing plant so your water is clean? Fine, but there will be taxes to pay for it. And so on. Are all taxes reasonable or fairly applied – hell, no. But that is the idea behind them, and there is a recourse if you’re, say, a California businessman who doesn’t like having to collect a state tax. You can work to vote out the people who put the tax in place and find someone else who agrees with you or even run yourself. What recourse do I have in Virginia, or someone in Washington, or Illinois for taxes collected in California? None. You know, I believe that’s called taxation without representation. Generally not regarded as a good idea since about 1776.

So let’s take your bricks-and-mortar retailer. The local, state, and federal governments provide law and order, police and fire departments, regulation of utilities, schools, roads, etc. All of which the retailer benefits from when there are people around who can easily and safely shop at their store and have the money to do so. And that’s why he pays his taxes. Not because the government is due some tithe like a church – no, governments collect taxes to pay for all the stuff we ask them to do.

Now, look at an online retailer. Do they need roads? They might if they’re producing goods that need to be shipped, but if they’re selling ebooks, well then, not so much. What about all those other government services? Again, they’re either not applicable or the retailer pays for them through local, state, of federal taxes wherever they actually have offices. The only absolute-must-have thing for most online retailers is the Internet, and the states pay absolutely nothing for the maintenance and operation of that.

So what does Amazon “owe” the fine state of California or any other individual state? Not a whole hell of a lot.

As for the bricks-and-mortar retailer who feel this is so unfair? I guess they should have listened to that kid that told them 15 years ago that selling stuff online would some day be huge. I mean I do feel for them – they provide jobs, locally accessible tax revenue, etc. And some people like buying stuff in person from someone they know. Great! Brick-and-mortar shops that have great service and products will continue making money because the people who like to shop in person are willing to pay a little extra for that. But if your business model is so focused on price that the difference between having to charge tax and not is putting you in the red, chances are it’s your business model that has failed, not the government in collecting taxes.

Going back to the point above about states paying nothing for the maintenance and operation of the Internet — so who does pay? Well, the federal government created it and do provide national regulation of a sort across it, so perhaps they’re due something. But the infrastructure that provides us the Internet is already been bought and paid for — by us. First, obviously through federal taxes to fund things like DARPA and the creation of the Internet. But that’s really just a pittance and has almost no bearing on the Internet today. No, the existence and continued maintenance of the Internet is provided by telecommunications companies that own the lines, the networking equipment and the servers and they in turn charge people and business for services. No government “runs” the Internet – so unlike those non-Internet superhighways, state governments really can’t make a case they’re doing anything else but reaching into people’s wallets and grabbing a few bills because they feel like it they really need it.

Now, as a commie-pinko liberal, I like taxes as much as anybody else — okay, not really, but as I stated above, when done right, they are justified. A minimal Federal tax on Internet purchases is within the realm of reason I believe. Something small like 1- or 2-percent tax. It could go to pay for Federal oversight of the Internet infrastructure within the U.S. and the companies that own it, as well as initiatives to pay for research into faster bandwidth and carrying broadband to rural and poor areas. I believe a case can be made that without federal oversight, online retailers would find the Internet a much more hostile place to do business, so the tax would be justified I believe. And if there is any leftover money, add it into federal transportation expenditures so that all those highways that trucks drive on to deliver us our online-purchased goods are kept well-maintained.

That’s a reasonable discussion to have. How much, what exemptions might be needed, etc. There are details that will need to be worked out, but it should be worked out at the national level, since that really is the only place all of us have the representation to have our voice heard. And as it is largely an issue of interstate commerce, the Fed’s role is well precedented.

However, for anyone to claim that companies like Amazon are engaging in “blackmail” when they, as Amazon did, cutoff relationships with affiliates or close offices as a result of state-based sales taxes being enacted is idiotic. It’s like a mugger getting miffed that you don’t come around anymore after having mugged you repeatedly in the same neighborhood. Even worse, a patchwork quilt of state-by-state online sales taxes would have to be just about the most inefficient collection of revenue ever conceived. Also, since some states will see the advantage of NOT taxing online sales, what will happen will be online companies only having headquarters and doing business in those states.

And I’m sorry California, but your Internet sales tax is ill-conceived, counter-productive, and in my opinion probably not legal. I know you all have already cut to the budget bone in some cases, but if you hadn’t tied up so much of your budget into nondiscretionary spending through voter referendums and not also voted in the tax hikes to pay for them, you wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with. Maybe institute some taxes on bad movies, raise taxes on untalented celebrities, or look for other creative revenue streams? Hell, just tax your ex-Gov. Arnold every time he says or does something stupid — that should help.

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.