Sunday, August 10, 2014

What Keeps Me Up Nights

While the Right laments the loss of their individual liberty and the continued impurification of their precious bodily fluids, I thought I would list some of the things that actually keep me up nights.

Believe it or not, I don't think the government is the boogie man. Stupid, slow, corrupt, all of the above, yes, but hardly menacing. The idea that requiring people to purchase a product constitutes tyranny is absurd. You want to see what tyranny looks like, take a flight to North Korea. Send me a postcard when you get there, assuming you can. A word of caution: better have your affairs in order before you go.

I'm also not into conspiracies. If I wanted to be paranoid, I'd start smoking pot. Nobody likes the I.R.S., I get it. That doesn't mean they're out to get conservatives. Benghazi was a terrible tragedy, nothing more, nothing less. For God's sake, I'm begging you, move on. You're wearing me out. And, for the last time, the government's not taking away your guns.

So what am I afraid of? Glad you asked.

I'll tell you what frightens the living shit out of me. I worry about the continuing polarization that has gripped this nation. America has developed a reputation over the years as a melting pot. I strongly disagree. A melting pot implies a heterogeneous society transforming into a homogeneous one. There's nothing in our history that even remotely suggests we have the capacity to be homogeneous. The more I think about it, America looks more like a pressure cooker: a lot of different and diverse ingredients under constant pressure. Well, don't look now, but that pressure cooker is about to explode.

Not since the days of the Reconstruction has the country been so bitterly divided. We've always had regions that were more conservative than others, but over the last few years the country has all but split in two. It's as though we fought the Civil War all over again, only this time the Confederacy won.

Like Lincoln before him, the election of Barack Obama has triggered a wave of rage and resentment unlike any I've ever witnessed. It's as though a pestilence was suddenly unleashed and set loose upon the land. Once covert expressions of racism have given way to far more overt ones. Some are so disgustingly flagrant, it's enough to turn your stomach.


For the life of me I cannot understand the level of vitriol this president has had to endure. Some of the charges levied at him would be almost laughable if they weren't so pitiful. I look at Barack Obama and I see a fairly competent, if somewhat flawed, president who inherited an economy on the brink of depression and who did the best he could to avert what would've been a catastrophe. He's made some mistakes, not the least of which was believing he could reason with people who were unreasonable. But in his almost six years in office, I have seen nothing that warrants the constant barrage of disrespect he is shown on an almost daily basis. Not even George Bush during his darkest days in office was treated this badly.

Keep in mind, I am NOT talking about honest disagreements over policy. Those are fair game. Politicians have had to contend with such things since the founding of the Republic. But, let's face it, we're not talking about policy disagreements here. Just look at the evidence. The birther movement, the placards showing Obama with a bone through his nose, the hissy fits many threw when he put his feet up on the Oval Office desk and later when he had a Marine hold an umbrella for him in the Rose Garden, the recent law suit filed against him for delaying a provision in a law his opponents repeatedly tried to repeal and finally the calls for impeachment for his "excessive" use of executive orders (a practice many past presidents did far more frequently). It was as if he didn't know his rightful place. How dare he be so disrespectful (i.e. uppity). Who does he think he is, the president or something? Well, yeah, he is. And that, for many, is the crux of the problem.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: white America has a problem with racism. It's always had. It gleefully cheers its black athletes when they win games, but once those black athletes dare attempt to climb up the corporate ladder, they are blocked at virtually every turn. This idea that anyone can make it in America if they try hard has always been a canard. Despite all the lofty fairy tales that were fed to us as kids, the simple truth is that some are born with two strikes against them from the very start. No matter how hard they try, they will never make it to the top of that ladder.

Barack Obama turned that paradigm on its head. His ascendancy to the presidency of the United States upset the power structure in a profound way. For the first time in its history, a black man was calling the shots for the entire country. For some this was the dawning of a new and bold chapter in the American story; for others, though, it meant the end of their universe. The pushback was as predictable as it was ugly.

How we get out of this, I'm not sure. What I am sure of is this: The scars of these last six years, and the two that will follow, will take a long time to heal. The next black or future Hispanic president (and let's just get it out of the way and say it: there will be an Hispanic in the Oval Office one day) will owe this president a huge debt of gratitude. He was and is, in his own way, the Jackie Robinson of his day.

Next up on the list of things that go bump in the night for me is the flood of corporate money into American politics. The wingnuts on the Right decry government intrusion into the private sector. Actually, it's the other way around. The private sector, for all intents and purposes, has put a vice grip on the government. It is now firmly in charge of the political process in this country.

In 2012 alone, approximately $7 billion was spent attempting to elect candidates in both parties. More than $2.1 billion of it came via soft money, which, thanks to the Supreme Court, now has no limits. Not only are corporations considered people, they are apparently jolly green giants. They have unfettered access to practically every level of government from Congress to state houses to local municipalities.

In 1981 the number of registered lobbyists in Washington was approximately 7,000. Today that number stands at over 14,000. But more alarming than the number of lobbyists is the amount they spend: $3.5 billion in 2009, compared with $200 million in 1983. According to a paper by Lee Drutman, "lobbying has been expanding at increasing rates. Controlling for inflation, between 1998 and 2008 lobbying expenditures increased faster than various measures of government size and activity." The ratio was 77% to 38% respectively.

Of the 535 total members of Congress, 245 are millionaires; 66 in the Senate and 179 in the House. That comes out to 46% or more than 45 times the national average. And these buffoons wonder why their approval ratings are so dismal. It's a little hard representing people you can't possibly relate to or apparently care about.

Many of these Senators and Representatives will eventually go on to become lobbyists themselves. There are currently 416 former members of Congress who work for lobbying firms. Among the more notable are Dick Armey, Jim DeMint, Chris Dodd, Bob Kerrey, Joe Lieberman and Newt Gingrich.  All of them are raking in the dough and lining the pockets of current members of Congress who vote the way they want them to.

The decision by Mike Rogers, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, to not seek reelection and instead become a "broadcast pundit" - whatever that means - is an excellent example of the rot that has set in. As powerful and as influential as Rogers is, he will become even more powerful and considerably richer once he leaves Congress. This is the sad state of politics in America. It is now nothing more than a stepping stone to the pot of gold that awaits many at the end of the rainbow. K Street has now overtaken Pennsylvania Avenue as the center of power in Washington.

Mark Twain once said that we had "the best government money can buy." If that was true during Twain's lifetime, just imagine how much worse the situation is today. The cancer that started to grow more than a century ago, has now fully metastasized into a massive tumor. Unless drastic measures are taken soon, the patient (i.e., the government) will perish, if it hasn't already.

The next thing that sends shivers down my spine is the growing conflagration of guns in America. Over the last couple of years, certain parts of the country more closely resemble the OK Corral than they do a 21st century nation. The only thing missing is the theme song to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Funny though it may seem to some, it's really quite tragic to see a supposedly grown adult walking into a Chipotle sporting a semi-automatic rifle. The terror these numbskulls inflict on the general population by their mere presence is beyond belief.  How in the world did this country allow itself to become the punch line to some sick joke?

You'd think a series of senseless murders of children and adults in schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, military installations and universities would be enough for this country to finally take the necessary action to enact meaningful gun regulation. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. If anything, the opponents of gun regulation have doubled down on their efforts to resist even the mention of regulation. One of the most perverse byproducts of this movement is a book titled, "My Parents Open Carry." The cover depicts a little girl surrounded by her parents, both of whom are packing handguns. Why is this perverse? Since Newtown, 127 children have been killed by guns in their own homes. Not only have they not been made safer by the presence of guns in the home, they are far more likely to be shot by those very same guns.

Thirty-five states now permit the open carry of handguns without a permit. Thirty-four states have what are called "stand your ground" laws which permit the use of deadly force if a person feels they are being threatened in public. It was just such a law that allowed George Zimmerman to get away with murdering Trayvon Martin back in 2012.

A recent study revealed that the United States has 88 guns per 100 people and 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, by far the most of any developed country in the world. Conversely, Japan had just .6 guns per 100 people and .06 gun-related deaths per 100,000, the fewest among developed countries. This is not a coincidence, nor is it rocket science. More guns equal more gun deaths. It's just simple math.

How much more innocent blood will be spilled over a warped interpretation of the Second Amendment? It's time responsible people got together, put their foot down and told the gun nuts where to go. Their freedom to own a gun shouldn't come at the expense of the United States being turned into a shooting gallery. It is possible to enact common-sense regulation that puts reasonable limits on the types of guns that can be purchased. If you need an AR-15 to kill a dear, you're a pretty lousy hunter. Either that or you're a sadist.

You want to stop a bad man with a gun? How about making sure he doesn't get a hold of one in the first place.

And now we come to the last, but hardly least, thing that gives me nightmares: the dumbing down of America. The recent wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping the United States poses perhaps the greatest threat to its future. I'm not quite sure exactly when being stupid became a fashion statement, but many in the country are wearing it like a badge of honor.

Now to be fair, ignorance didn't just spring up overnight; it's always existed to some extent. But it's recent emergence as a dominant political force in this country is most disturbing, given the potential consequences.

From the global-warming deniers who call it a hoax to the creationists who insist that the universe is 6,000 years old to the American revisionists who are attempting to rewrite history books to reflect a kinder, gentler take on manifest destiny and slavery (hint, they weren't really that bad), there seems to be no shortage of gullible people willing and able to swallow their propaganda.

And while the gullible drink in the lies, the proponents of those lies are glorified by right-wing media outlets and let off the hook by a mass media that is incapable of doing the job it was called to do. Deliberate distortions and fabrications are passed off as merely the flip side of the same coin. In an attempt to be seen as "fair and balanced," both sides of an argument are given equal consideration.

Despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and that man is responsible for it, the 3 percenters, as I prefer to call them, are allowed to peddle their opinion as fact. David Gregory, the soon-to-be ex-moderator of Meet the Press, recently pitted Bill Nye (a scientist) against Marsha Blackburn (a political hack) to "discuss" climate change. That would be like a Ph.D. discussing physics with a four-year old. Small wonder there are so many misinformed people in the country.

How serious is this problem? The Pentagon now says climate change poses a serious threat to our national security. With the planet's future at stake and the fate of millions of people hanging in the balance, the "vaunted" fourth estate has treated this most grave and important matter with all the triviality of two boys debating who was the best ballplayer of all time. 

There is a profound difference between fact and opinion. One may prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate. That's an opinion that can be debated until the cows come home. There's no right or wrong answer. Jumping out of a 20-story building will result in death due to deceleration trauma. That's not an opinion, it's a fact. Facts are not open to debate; that's why they're called facts.

But the poet laureate of the fiction as fact club is Ken Ham, director of the Creation Museum, who takes the book of Genesis literally and claims that the universe is only 6,000 years old. Ham has gone out of his way to attempt to discredit evolution and has fought to have creationism taught in public schools alongside traditional science. In Ham's alternate universe, dinosaurs and humans lived together; they even shared the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (I wonder what tree they ate from, seeing as how big they were).

Augustine, as far back as 415AD, ripped such "nonsense" to shreds, calling it "embarrassing and reckless."

For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

But, despite the words of Augustine, Ham and people like him have not been deterred from spreading their lies to promote their narrow agenda. If anything it has only emboldened them to press on. A recent "debate" between Bill Nye and Ham, hosted by CNN at the Creation Museum (yes, you can see where this is going), proved to be the perfect venue for Ham.

The moment he took the stage alongside Nye, Ham immediately gained the foothold he needed. Once more, the old point/counterpoint false narrative was exhumed. Ham was allowed to reframe the whole debate around two equal, but opposing, viewpoints. Nye was doomed from the start.

In an 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, the late Carl Sagan addressed this problem.

"We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?"

Who knew that those words would prove to be a harbinger of things to come? Sagan's ghost is crying out from his grave but few are listening to it. Of all the threats to our Republic (racism, corruption, violence), none are more dangerous than ignorance. You can convict the heart of a racist, imprison corrupt officials, even reduce the number of deadly weapons that are available for purchase. But ignorance is almost impossible to cure.

The reason for this should be self evident. People, for the most part, eschew the complex for the simple. A long time ago, I learned that the secret to being a successful salesman was to keep it simple. Don't overburden customers with trivial things like facts. I have to confess, I wasn't all that comfortable with that strategy, but others were. Some of the most successful people I ever worked with were little better than snake-oil salesmen. And the worst part was that the customers never caught on to what they were doing. Stupid is as stupid gets.

So there you have it, my fab four list of things that keep me up nights. By no means is this a complete list. But it does represent the worst of the worst.

Sweet dreams.

4 comments:

mike clark said...

Well said!!! Should I share? :-)

Prof. Walter Jameson said...

Sir:

First, let me say that I agree with a lot of what you've written here. However, I would like to share a different perspective on other areas where I do have some disagreement. Let's start with something that may seem to be trivial, but it really is not: When did the word 'conspiracy' become such a pejorative? Perhaps it was around the same time the word 'liberal' started to get dragged through the mud? Do you understand what I'm getting at? Events - quite terrible events - sometimes do come about as the result of a conspiracy. Sometimes they're elaborate and other times less so. But conspiracies do indeed happen.

Regarding the issue of polarization among the people of the land .... meh, it's been that way from the start. We've had periods in our history where it's been less severe, and periods where it could rightfully be described as, what you've said, a pressure cooker. Cycles, peaks and valleys ... ever will it be so. Yes, the election of Barak Obama was polarizing; so was the election of George W. Bush and the election of Bill Clinton. In the modern era, I've observed a particular spike in the vitriol since the election of President Clinton. Is all of this something that resides outside of what is considered ordinary in the world of politics? Our history tells us that it is not.

You have stated that white America has a problem with racism. I don't have any idea what this means. Some white people are racists, this is true. When exposed, in this day and age, they are rightly exposed as being ignorant and buffoonish; they are ostracized and marginalized. Your statement paints with too broad a brush and leads some people to contrive convoluted definitions of racism to support the point. Know this well, sir: Decent people who know in their hearts that they are not racist resent being labeled as such; rotten people who are racist don't give a damn.

Ah yes, corporate influence in the political arena. It's amazing what a really, really egregious misreading of the Constitution - see Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819) - metastasized into. The Citizens United case (558 U.S. 310, 2010) is but the latest manifestation of this national cancer.

I fully understand your position on guns. Allow me to highlight the problem succinctly with a quote from your essay: "How much more innocent blood will be spilled over a warped interpretation of the Second Amendment?" Well, what is the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment? Are the interpretations warped, or is the original writing? Were the Framers referring to states' rights or individual rights? Do you see the problem? I don't have the answer, just another possible interpretation. And who cares about that? Unfortunately, this one is not likely to be settled for a very long time ..... a very long time.

One more quote on this issue from your essay: "You want to stop a bad man with a gun? How about making sure he doesn't get a hold of one in the first place." This is just not possible. And now, with the advent of 3-D printers, even less so.

Finally, to your point regarding the dumbing down of America. Lamentable, isn't it? Kind of reminds me of a satirical, dystopian film a few years back called "Idiocracy." We're not there yet, but inching closer and closer for sure. The evidence is all around us. Have you ever been in the company of people who actually bragged about not being "good at math?" How about the proliferation of SUVs on the road? What, pray tell, is the thinking process that one goes through before deciding to buy a Chevy Suburban? You know, I mean somebody who is not hauling a boat, an elephant or two, or is not a general contractor.

Prof. Walter Jameson said...



Have you noticed something strange about a lot of people in public today? Yeah, that's right! They have no faces! All you see is the tops of their heads. You know why? Their faces are focused on some stupid little electronic contraption that they're holding in the palm of their hand, totally oblivious to the world around them. Do you think that they're reading something by Emerson, perhaps? Maybe they're engaged in learning calculus from one of MITs online courses? Perhaps they're studying the great Impressionists ... or the masters of architecture. Sure, that must be it!

Sir, don't lose anymore sleep over these things. It just ain't worth it. The problems are way too big and intractable. The only thing one can do is to be an example of what is right, what is good and what is just through his own individual actions and deeds in his daily life.

Be good and be well!

Prof. Walter Jameson said...

Sir:

It always amazes me how one side of the political spectrum has such mistrust of government, yet .... YET, will invariably, and in a knee-jerk fashion, lend complete and total support to that entity (of government) which has the ability to throw people in cages and who can take a person's life for just about any *seemingly plausible* reason they can (and do) make up. Interesting, isn't it?

Any thoughts regarding the situation in Ferguson, Mo.? Or, for that matter, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NYC?