Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Half-Glassed Metaphor

I had a recent email exchange with an old buddy who seemed decidedly pessimistic about the political scene in the homeland. He offered an analysis of that tired old cliché about viewing the glass as either half-empty or half-full. He noted that the perspective is quite dependent upon whether one is pouring or drinking.

Here’s a part of the dialogue:

Here's something, though: I hold a very particular concept of America that is set in a context which includes a very scrupulous understanding of values ("ethics", although very people who use the word have a clue to what it's all about) and their origin and function. I am an individualist, Ed. I happen to have concluded that the finest political development in human history was the applied individualism manifest in 1776 -- and 1789 had nothing to do with any of it.

We're on the same sheet of music, metaphorically speaking. A few years ago when, in a mis-guided moment of recovering Catholic "chutzpah", I chose to run for the state legislature in Colorado, I got trashed in the run-up to the primary by my opponent, a darling of the Focus on the Family crowd who dropped out of college after a year, was working as a cold-caller in a telemarketing boiler room, but was staunchly pro-life, hence the good guy. I on the other hand was over-educated, over-experienced, and overly ethical.

The rightwing conservatives of the party totally repudiated me, since someone who thought individuals not governments should make personal decisions and who didn't attend a church and had no children could not be morally upright. (It reminded my wife of a period in her college years when she had a number of ultra-Baptist friends. They asked her once if she would do something bad if she were certain that no one would find out. She replied that no, she would not. Wrong was wrong, even if undiscovered. They were astonished that it didn't take fear of hell to keep someone moral.)

Well, as Paul Harvey might relate, my opponent got elected, rose to Speaker of the House in the Colorado assembly--divorced his wife and abandoned his three children, shacked up with a lobbyist in Denver, got thrown out by her for philandering and was caught by the Denver PD trying to break into her house with a screwdriver--but at least he was still pro-life! Which doesn’t even get to the peeing on the potted plants in the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel at an official function. (Although the behavior sounds remarkably like something a fighter pilot might engage in, we do have standards—low standards, but standards nevertheless.)

What all this has to do with the assertion that things are getting better is pretty simple: I don't care. The reason is because it's freedom, Ed, which makes life worthwhile, regardless of anything else. And it has never existed in my homeland in my lifetime, which is more than half gone now, and that -- like I said -- has crucial implications for the quality of my life.

This government has had its way with my life in all kinds of ways that should have been none but my own. Now, I'm the one who chose to resist that in every single way I could. I don't complain about the price, but that I should have had to pay it in the first place, and that's a crucial and valid distinction. I was not born for the pleasure of the creeps in Washington -- nor were you or anyone else, but I'm the one who concerns me. And I find no value in the chance, which is all it is, and not a very good one, that this place is going to be America someday after I'm gone. This is the only life I'm ever going to live, and it should have been all mine. That was the value, Ed, and the best part of it is gone, now.

A favorite quote is the one from Ben Franklin regarding "those who would sacrifice liberty for security" deserving neither. The fact is that Rousseau's Social Contract requires precisely that. When we choose to live in a society, we give up some choices--we sacrifice some liberty. The essential question is where the line gets drawn on the spectrum from total freedom (i.e. anarchy) to total security (the ultimate nanny-state--Alcatraz or its modern equivalent.) We've been pretty good in the US about getting the line drawn in a tolerable place although occasionally it drifts excessively from the sweet spot.

A good argument can be made that in my lifetime, I've seen freedom increased dramatically in this country. When I was growing up we had conscription, segregation, censorship, mandated prayer in schools, repressive taxation, prohibited abortion, etc. Now we've got an all-volunteer military, arguable integration, almost unlimited access to some of the most disgusting music, movies, TV and Internet crap that man is capable of, a virtual denial of spirituality in all things public, a tax structure that while still redistribution does much to encourage free enterprise, and medical reproductive services almost without limit.

On the other hand, an equally good argument can be made to the opposite side. We have more governmental intrusion, more victimless crimes, more propagandizing, poorer educational opportunities, more mandated association and affirmative actions, etc. etc. Worst of all we've got the apparently developmentally disabled cadre of the TSA which most recently has been highlighted as prohibiting ten-month-old infants from boarding airplanes because they can't exercise the judgment to determine the baby is not a threat. Over all, I'm still pretty comfortable. And, despite the propaganda to the contrary, I've not been hampered one iota by the Patriot Act.

Like I said: I have my moments. But I can't ignore what I see, and -- for one big-deal thing -- I don't see any hope in the red states. Certainly not in my own lifetime, but not even in the long run.

I think we still have history to make, Ed: this thing is going to end up as badly as it started out good. It's certainly not a law of history that things have to go that way, but we're talking about the difference between a healthy body and one that's obviously diseased, and it's simply not getting the care it needs.

Well, I can agree with part of it, but won't be as pessimistic about the outcome. The body politic has always been harboring disease. Dictatorships and democracies have come and gone on regular cycles. Ours is a little bit longer in the tooth than some, but not as elderly as others. The Brits have done well for a lot longer, but now that they've lost the homogeneity of their population they are suddenly faced with crisis over British society and culture. The various Euro-democracies are all in varying degrees more elitist than the US (which is no slouch in the elitism department) and decidedly more dissipated morally and misguided economically.

Every once in a while the US gets jolted back onto track. 9/11 was such a jolt as was WW II in a much larger sense. Our Civil War was a jolt and the Depression was a jolt. Each time we get nudged back toward a common goal. Sometime the reorientation is enduring and sometimes transitory. But, from my right-of-center perspective, I see the course correction working fairly well in correcting the excesses of the post-Vietnam liberal pacifism, the '80's "me generation" and the smug self-righteousness of the '90s.

Sam Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" seems to me to have been remarkably prescient.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

What Should You be Reading?

Possibly the most frightening aspect of our culture of mass media is the hysteria that can be generated over the most mundane of topics with just a little glimpse of a total story. A good example is the current teapot tempest occurring in Denver where someone discovered that there were publications in the public library that were not in English! Arrgghhh, the horror, the horror of it all. Imagine, that in this melting pot of “E Pluribus Unum” we might actually have citizens who don’t speak the one true language. It seems so easy to forget that this nation was settled by folks who spoke a lot more languages than that of the King. We had a lot of German, Dutch, French and Spanish speakers among the first colonies and then during the intervening couple of centuries we’ve absorbed a lot of others as well. But, some are really incensed that Denver is offering Spanish language books for the populace. Spanish Books in Public Libraries?

I feel a little bit over-qualified to ring in on this topic, since I had the privilege to serve for ten years on the seven member Board of Trustees of the Pikes Peak Library District including several years as President of the Board. We served a population of around half a million constituents from eleven different library facilities and with a collection of over a million items. Not surprisingly, not all of the folks served were totally happy with the choices we made. Most however considered themselves well served.

What really is the issue here? (Regular readers of this blog might note that as my favorite question.) It seems that it is a corollary to the question of illegal immigration from our national neighbor to the south. The debate about what to do with regard to the flood of Hispanic immigrants who penetrate our porous border usually focuses on emotional questions rather than economic, social or historical. Practical solutions to the problems aren’t easy and are seldom part of the discussion.

But how does the library fit in here? The implication seems to be that by having Spanish language materials available for checkout that somehow the DPL is forcing taxpayers to subsidize illegal immigration. Can you just picture it? Somewhere fifty miles south of Juarez there is a newspaper ad or a radio commercial urging rural peasants to quickly sneak across the border to Denver where they can check out books for free in Espanol. Yeah, that’s right. By running libraries that spend a whopping 8% of their budget on Spanish language material we’re undermining the nation.

Throw in a complaint that there were sexually oriented Spanish comic books to bring the blue-noses into the argument. Then appeal to the anti-tax crowd by reminding people that “taxpayers” fund this outrage. Gimme a break.

Are there Spanish-speaking communities in Denver? Why, yes there are. Do these folks work, live and even pay taxes there? Certainly. Do they contribute proportionally to support of the DPL? Absolutely. Do they have a right of access to materials in the library? Why not?

Libraries were recognized by our Founding Fathers as a public good, essential to informing and educating the populace so that they could participate effectively in a democracy. Franklin and Jefferson were noteworthy in their efforts to support public libraries. Today, the media have changed in libraries, but the mission of informing, educating and even entertaining people remains. Libraries still offer books, but they also provide Internet access, videos, recorded music, documentaries, educational forums, periodicals, and even serve as repositories of historic records. Some of that stuff might even be in the language in which it was originally created.

The sort of jingoistic prattle emanating from Denver about the appropriateness of foreign language materials in taxpayer funded libraries is ridiculous.

Ohh, and by the way Fox News, Rick Ashton is more than “a librarian” at the DPL. He’s the Executive Director—the tall dog that runs the entire enterprise.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Still the Same Ol’ Story

It seems that with a lot of US military experiencing combat again, the Veteran’s Administration is repeating their past practices. Since Sherman pronounced that war was hell, the general non-combatant population likes to believe that the horror of war will permanently damage a huge percentage of those who participate. And, of course by extension, since war is so destructive of the mental health of the players, there is no justifiable reason for ever engaging in the activity. As warriors return from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA has been building numbers of vets who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, now it appears that someone is looking at the process and apparently doesn’t like what they see. The assumption of affliction without much in the way of validation of either symptoms or causative experience is getting the VA looked at. Still pumping the PTSD numbers?

A few years ago B. G. Burkett, a military researcher and Vietnam infantry veteran, collaborated with Glenna Whitley, an award-winning investigative reporter in a book titled, Stolen Valor. The book is required reading for any who wish to challenge the “conventional wisdom” of those who lament US involvement in the Vietnam War. The book offers three principal theses and supports them with excellent documentation, referencing and research. First, the book addresses the warping of statistics regarding who actually bore the brunt of the fighting during that period when conscription was the law of the land.

Ask the man on the street, and you’ll be told that the average age was just nineteen, the majority of the draftees who served in Vietnam were minorities who couldn’t get a deferment or a safe National Guard assignment (like flying single-seat/single-engine jets for five years?), and the majority of the combat casualties were African-Americans. The book provides detailed and supportable statistics to prove that the average age was closer to 24, the draft impacted all demographic slices proportionally, and the casualty rate of blacks in combat was lower than the percentage that could be expected based on representation in society. In other words, the truth doesn’t support the common belief.

The principle thesis of the book is that an incredible number of individuals now don the mantle of heroism without having served. The book focuses on claims of poseurs, wannabes and criminals who assert POW status, top-secret missions and high-level decorations to gain attention, respect, jobs or privilege. The documentation is, once again flawless and undeniable. Wannabes and Phonies Uncovered

But, the third thesis (and most tedious to read) is the refutation of the post-traumatic stress disorder epidemic. Using the numbers gathered from government sources through FOIA requests, the authors offer proof that drug abuse, alcoholism, homelessness and anti-social/criminal behavior does NOT occur any more often in combat veterans than it does in the population at large. Moreover, they build a strong case that the VA intentionally misrepresents the proliferation of PTSD cases in order to increase their budget share, justify their bureaucracy and build their mental health care empire.

It appears with the new investigation of the VA PTSD claims for the current conflict that they’ve not updated their playbook in the last thirty years.

Stolen Valor Reviewed
Stolen Valor Reviewed II

Monday, August 08, 2005

Define The Threat

Charles Krauthammer wrote a great piece about a week ago on how the Brits are dealing with the very serious terrorist threat and how we politically correct Americans are bumbling along. Anyone who has take a trip by air in the last several years knows what he’s talking about. Logical Profiling

The issue is that racial-prejudice loaded term, “profiling”. It has become a banner for civil libertarians to wave whenever a police crackdown appears to focus on the most probable predators in a particular area. We blanch (pun maybe intended) at the injustice of being stopped for “driving while black”—a euphemism for focused enforcement against those who simply happen to fit a racial demographic profile. It is a throwback to the red-neck sheriff days in the south. It is wrong to simply decide that because an African-American is driving a particular style of vehicle in a predominantly white neighborhood he should be stopped, searched and inconvenienced. No argument at all there.

But, if a victim of a street crime says, the perpetrator was a dark-skinned individual, about 25 years old wearing black baggy pants, a red Chicago Bulls jersey and a red ball cap cocked off to one side, should the police be restricted from focusing their search on folks who look like that? Should they stop a representative sampling of older women, just to be fair? Only the courts can decide.

The terrorist question, however, transcends the racial prejudice issue. It becomes a question of the greater good of protecting society at large over the individual right to “equal protection under the law”. We make those compromises all of the time in living in any society. It is the essence of the “Social Contract”—we draw lines along a spectrum between the needs of the individual and the need for security in society. Where the line falls between total freedom for the individual and total security for the society is the tough decision.

Krauthammer highlights the demographic profile of suicide bombing terrorists. They don’t generally look like your 75-year-old grandmother. They aren’t petite blond secretaries. They seldom, if ever, are brief-case carrying, suit-and-tie-wearing executives. They aren’t American teenagers with I-Pods plugged in their ears. They aren’t family groups of mom, pop and baby Jane. We know what they will look like based on the history of the last forty years of terrorist attacks. This ain’t rocket science.

Frankly, I’m sick of waking for a trip, taking a shower, packing carefully and dressing neatly only to find my bags rumpled, my briefcase disturbed, my computer subjected to man-handling and my clothing disheveled by the time I get to the boarding gate. I’m about as likely to be a terrorist bomber as was Joe Foss, retired Marine General, multiple fighter pilot ace, former Governor of S. Dakota, and Medal of Honor Recipient. The Neanderthals of security thought that the 86 year old gentleman’s Medal was some sort of weapon—like a ninja star, I guess. Joe Foss, Hero Gets Hassled

For Americans to not recognize the MOH is inexcusable. For our fixation with avoidance of profiling to continue to endanger us is even more reprehensible. Isn’t it time to wise up?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Just Justice?

Last week I noted that the fishing expedition of the Democrat senators for any and everything that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts might have said, written or thought in the last hundred years was foolish. It doesn’t take long to convince yourself from Supreme Court history that what a candidate has done either as an attorney or on the bench is not a reliable indicator of what they will do once ensconced on the ultimate court. While an announced ideologue might seem to presage an attempt to rewrite the Constitution, the simple fact that an individual has done work on an issue in the past, written an opinion or advisory for a client, or rendered a judgment in case law shouldn’t really be considered as indicative of future behavior.

Now, we’ve got the enigma of John Roberts. The poor ol’ progressives were all set to trash him as a knee-jerk conservative. They simply needed the evidence to cement his reputation as one of those religious right reactionaries. It would be an easy job to “Bork” him since surely there would be a lot of damning thought in his record. But, it appears from my humble “Red State” perspective that exactly as I predicted, the evidence is pointing to a judge that judges on the facts of the issue at hand. Can the past determine the future

It’s now become impossible for any but the most benighted of our Senate luminaries (think Kennedy, Leahy, Schumer here…) to seriously cast the aspersions of conservatism upon Roberts. The records that they hung their hopes on show Roberts working on a wide range of issues, serving the needs of his client rather than his own agenda. How refreshing! He’s done work for the indigent—a core constituency of the Dems. He’s done pro-bono work briefly opposing an anti-gay state constitution initiative enacted by Colorado voters. He’s defended death row inmates. In other words, he seems to be quite comfortable in following the law even when it doesn’t quite mesh with what he would like that law to be.

Can a candidate who has expressed opinions that very effectively bridge both sides of the ideological aisle possibly be opposed? Stand by to see how the Senators face this conundrum.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Legislators, Theologians and Medicine

Since I live only a few short blocks from the headquarters of Focus on the Family, I seem to get a bit more than my share of exposure to the guidance, reasoning and direction of Dr. James Dobson. Focus has become a huge political player, not only in Colorado Springs and the state of Colorado but nationally as well. Candidates for the presidency of the United States are certain to stop in for an office visit with the good doctor to seek his endorsement. When they kiss his ring and prove that they are ideologically pure of heart, Dobson responds by telling all of his millions of readers, listeners and viewers precisely whom to cast their ballot for.

Focus has done a lot of good. They offer sound information on child rearing, marriage, life skills and more. They also preach a lot of evangelical, fundamentalist religion. And, they reach deeply into the government to impose their moral views on our society. They are rigidly pro-life, Christian, anti-gay, home-school, school prayer, anti-porn, and creationist. Some of their positions are defensible in their minds and some are indefensible by any stretch. The organization and its subsidiaries walk a very narrow line with regard to the tax-exempt status they claim as a “ministry.”

Dobson got a bit upset last week when Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN) came out in favor of relaxing the Bush administration restrictions limiting embryonic stem-cell research. Dr. Dobson Goes Too Far? There is a great deal of potential for such research to result in significant medical advances. The research requires embryonic stem-cells, not adult stem-cells, to progress and the limited number of stem-cell lines which have been made available under the Bush rules aren’t adequate. The argument for relaxation of the rules, however, hinges on questions of abortion and “life” rather than science.

What is noteworthy here is that while Dr. Dobson, holds a Phd in child development, it is Senator Frist who is much more than a legislator on this issue. Frist is an M.D. and a respected heart surgeon. Dobson has made his career as a counselor and a theologian, while Frist is arguably on a temporary detour from a career in medicine. We might just have a situation in which a scientific decision is actually going to be subject to science rather than religion or political expediency. Wouldn’t that be a relief?

Dobson doesn’t deal with science in his outrage. He likens the medical researchers to the Nazis. When Rep. Dick Durbin (D-IL) drew a Nazi/Fascist/Stalinist parallel to our soldiers in Iraq a few weeks ago, the righteous right got outraged. Will we hear similar umbrage again? Most troubling though is this key statement by Dobson regarding those who seek relaxed stem-cell research rules, “The truth is these are ultraliberals who want the legal approval — and the federal money — to experiment on unborn life and don’t care a whit about unborn life at any age.”

It appears that, carried away by his own rhetoric, Dobson forgets that Frist can hardly be called an ultraliberal. To me it would be Republican sacrilege to hang that label on Nancy Reagan who has also spoken out in favor of increased stem-cell research.

And, stickler that I am for precise language, what of the term “unborn life”? Can I live in an “unbuilt house”? It causes me to reminisce on all of those grade-B horror movies about the “undead.” And, what of the even more confusing “unborn life at any age”? How does one get older while still unborn? Does Dobson realize he makes no sense and in quixotic terms seems to be tilting at medical windmills with a lance of inflammatory rhetoric?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Theoretically Speaking

The flap of the day seems to be the President’s statement that he found no problem with “intelligent design” being taught in schools beside the theory of evolution. The spinning and convoluting about the issue is remarkable. First, because the President, despite being the most powerful man in the entire world, is not the arbiter of public school curricula regardless of what authority we might mistakenly ascribe to him. And, second, because the conflict over these competing “theories” is absurd.

I was educated in Catholic schools until I entered college. I spent years at the mercy of the Sisters of St. Francis in elementary school and then four years trying to avoid being disciplined by the Christian Brothers at St. Patrick’s High in Chicago. I came out of the experience being able to read, write, do math all the way up to the doorstep of calculus, and with a pretty good grasp of the history, geography and philosophy of the modern world. Yes, we started and ended the school day by standing beside our desks and reciting some prayers. We also recited the Pledge of Allegiance (but without “under God” in the verbiage in those days.)

The conflict between Genesis and all of the evidence of archeology, paleontology, astronomy, biology, geology and modern science was never much of a problem. We asked the nuns and brothers which was correct—the evolution of millions of years or the creation in a busy week? The answer was simple. The bible was written as an allegory, a metaphor for the wonders that we cannot understand. While all scientific evidence indicates that the world was not created in a week, the fact is that no one has yet unraveled the conundrum of an “uncaused first cause.”

The vilified Religious Right and the evil humanistic Left can’t explain how to jump start a universe if there is an initial nothingness. While evolution and an expanding universe can certainly be supported by a lot of evidence, the whole business founders when we continue to ask the simple question of “what caused that.” Eventually you get to the Big Bang or the first atom in the entire sequence and then the question of cause goes wanting.

Similarly the premise of “intelligent design”—that the universe is too complex, diverse, orderly and remarkable to be a product of randomness—depends upon the existence of a Supreme Being, an uncaused first cause. Ask “where did God come from” and you get the same answer as “what caused the Big Bang?”

To continually assert that “evolution is just a theory” is only partially true. It is a theory that accounts for an incredible amount of what we can physically support with research. Most science starts with theorizing. Then research is conducted to determine if observation supports the theory. There’s not much you can do to fault evolution as an explanation for a lot of what we observe. Did man evolve from apes? We can point to a lot of evidence that says yes, and we can challenge a lot of evidence to conclude no. We can, however, show that even over the short term, man is evolving. Check the statistics for average height and weight of an American male today versus 100 years ago. The 1903 Springfield rifle that was the standard weapon of the Army in World War One is dimensioned for the average soldier who was five feet three inches tall.

Intelligent design used to be called “Creationism” in most circles. The new moniker is a subtle attempt to circumvent the obvious conclusion that virtually nothing we observe in the universe can literally fit the strait-jacket of a seven day creation spree. So, we get “intelligent design;” a claim that the complexity of what we observe indicates a master plan. Well, sure! But try to get the “theory” to account for dinosaurs or the particular flora and fauna of the Galapagos or even Australia.

If we are to educate our society, we need to be willing to discuss ideas, theories and alternatives. That’s what the President said. We also need to stop drawing either/or lines in the intellectual sand. The danger is not in teaching children about evolution or teaching them about an intelligent design. The real danger is establishing a system in which only one faction’s frame of reference is taught as undeniable truth. But, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the real danger is simply teaching kids to think, question, and then conclude based on measurable evidence. Wouldn’t that be something to behold?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Creativity of the Troops

The American Fighting Man is unrivaled in creativity in the field. And, a whole new generation now is learning about Jihad Janey. It's becoming more apparent each day that poor ol' Jane is as befuddled now as she was in 1972 with regard to what is important to Americans and what mainstream America thinks of her.