Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pity The Parents

Republican leaders in Congress told the fifty million people who suffered through Hurricane Irene that they would not approve funding for relief efforts unless President Obama cut something else out of the budget to offset the costs of the relief. Five million people lost their electricity. Some towns were completely cut-off because roads were washed out. People's homes were swept away. People died. And the Republicans decided that instead of having the government do everything in its power to help Americans, they would do everything they could to push their political agenda. The Republican leadership stood with a life-preserver in hand, refusing to toss it to people in need.

I feel for the parents of these Republican leaders. They were undoubtedly proud to see their children elected to high office. They probably bragged to their friends about their kids' accomplishments, like most parents do. But how ashamed they must feel now that they see how poorly their children are behaving.

I have stood on the sidelines of the playground, chatting with other parents while our children played. Sometimes the play would get a bit rough, and the parents watched anxiously, ready to intervene if necessary. But none of us generally had to do anything more drastic than call out to our kids and remind them to behave. The kids knew how they were supposed to act, and they knew we were watching. Only rarely would a parent have to separate his or her child from the others, usually for a brief time-out. In the most extreme cases, a cranky child might have to be taken home for a nap. It was a little embarrassing if your kid was the one who had to be removed because he or she was causing trouble, but the other parents understood. Everyone knew that kids have to learn, and sometimes parents have to step in.

As parents, we figure that if we do our jobs right, by the time our kids get elected to Congress they will know how to act like adults. It must be humiliating for the Republicans' parents that their kids are not playing nicely. Who wants to see their kid refuse to help someone in need, specially if their kid promised to help other people and was entrusted with that responsibility?

Weren't any of these Republicans ever Boy Scouts or crossing guards or baby sitters or life guards? I bet some of them were. I bet their parents drove them to meetings and sewed patches on their uniforms and pinned badges on them at ceremonies. I bet most of the Republicans' parents attended their graduations and threw parties for them. I bet the parents did everything right. And now they see that somehow, despite everything they did, their kids turned out bad. I'm sure the disgrace is very hard for these parents to bear.

Fortunately, there are kind people in this world who will do what they can to comfort these parents of Republicans. A reassuring word. A gentle touch. An accepting glance. Some little thing that will tell these disappointed parents that they should not be too hard on themselves; we know they tried. I hope these parents of Republicans can accept the kindness that is extended to them, without stopping to think that their own kids would never do such a nice thing for someone in need.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Seeing Signs

A Christian televangelist suggested that the stone in the Washington Monument cracked, not just because of an earthquake, but as a sign of the decline of the U.S. and the imminent coming of Jesus. A right-wing rabbi said that the earthquake happened because God is upset that New York state legalized gay marriage. He didn't explain why the quake was centered in Virginia and was felt in many states. There are always people who observe natural phenomenon and proclaim them to have supernatural origins. They could be right. How can we be sure, except that there is no evidence for their claims and perfectly adequate scientific explanations that don't depend upon magical powers?

I once walked into a casino in Las Vegas and put a nickel into a slot machine. The machine was broken, and my nickel came back to me. I took it as a sign that I should not gamble. I figured I was being given one last chance to not lose the rest of my money.

I once rode as a passenger on a motorcycle. The driver lost control at a very low speed, and we tumbled to the ground. No one was hurt, but I had been carrying a handful of dowel rods that I had purchased and every single one of them broke. I took it as a sign that I should not ride motorcycles. I was being given one last chance to not break my bones.

There was no evidence that any superior power was sending me signs to protect me. But it didn't matter. I derived my own lessons from these occurrences and acted the way I thought I should.

We are surrounded by things that could be interpreted as signs to guide us through life. Sometimes we heed them. Sometimes we don't. Just yesterday I saw a red light at an intersection. I took it as a sign that I was supposed to stop my car, so I did, but the guy next to me blew right through the light, and very nearly collided with another car. I'm pretty sure the light was meant for both of us. I'm also pretty sure it wasn't a sign from God, but just a sign from the local municipality.

It turns out that even a stop light, with no moral authority and no religious significance, is worth obeying. So why is it that the Libertarians and Tea Partiers are so adamant that government shouldn't make rules about anything that the Constitution doesn't specifically say government should regulate? Red lights aren't in the Constitution. Should we tear all the stoplights down?

Libertarians and Tea Partiers say they are tired of having so many rules telling them what they can and should do. They don't want to be told which foods are healthy. They don't want to be told they can't destroy the environment. They want to be able to do whatever they want to do, and to heck with all the rules and rule makers. To heck with everybody else; let them look out for themselves.

I don't know if the guy who ran the stoplight was a Libertarian or Tea Partier. He may just have been a selfish jerk. I'm not even sure how to tell the difference.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Republican politicians, by claiming that businesses won't invest in their businesses until they have certainty about their taxes, don't make a convincing case that taxes must be cut. They do prove, however, that they don't know anything about business.

Businesses never have certainty about anything, and when things are most certain for businesses, consumers and workers suffer. The greatest degree of certainty in business exists when a company has a monopoly, so that it is the only supplier of a good or service. Monopolists, knowing they have no competition, can produce inferior products and charge exorbitant prices. That is why monopolies are illegal.

Relatively high levels of certainty are also found when the marketplace is corrupted, as when government officials take bribes in exchange for contracts. This also is illegal, because it leads to shoddy goods and high prices. It also stifles competition, because honest businesses learn they can't succeed in a crooked marketplace.

Business in a capitalist, free-market system is all about uncertainty. Uncertainty is what leads businesses to innovate and take risks. Uncertainty about whether a product will be chosen over the competition leads businesses to improve their products and reduce their prices. Uncertainty about whether valued employees will quit and take their skills to another employer leads businesses to entice their employees with higher wages, benefits, training, and opportunities for advancement. Uncertainty about future expenses prompts businesses to hedge, creating liquidity in the marketplace, and to innovate, so that the value of their businesses will outpace inflation.

Amazingly, some politicians who claim to have been private-sector entrepreneurs are pleading for certainty. Amazing, because entrepreneurs are lauded as risk-takers. The ability to take advantage of an uncertain marketplace is one of the defining characteristics of a real entrepreneur. A real entrepreneur would never argue that businesses need certainty.

The call for certainty is not just nonsensical, it is offensive, because the plea for certain tax-breaks for businesses is being made by the very same politicians who are busy destroying the little bit of security which workers still have. Working people have no certainty that they will be able to keep their jobs, and if they lose their jobs, they have no certainty that they will be able to find others. They have no certainty that they won't lose their pensions if their employers go bankrupt, and they have no certainty that their savings and investments will not decline in value. They have no certainty that they will continue to have health insurance, and no certainty that the laws against age discrimination will be followed or enforced. Until recently, workers could at least feel certain that their Social Security would be there for them when they retired, but the Republicans have been trying to get rid of Social Security. And it shouldn't go unnoticed by the Republicans, who claim that certainty for businesses is a good thing, that workers have no certainty that their taxes won't go up or their wages go down.

The truth is that businesses will invest in their businesses when they think they have to in order to survive, or when they think the investments will make them more money, regardless of whether their taxes are a little higher or lower, and regardless of how much certainty they have about their taxes. The plea for certainty is a ruse. The only thing that is truly certain is that, whether or not businesses get the tax cuts they are asking for, they will be back asking for more later on, with the help of politicians who are willing to say anything if they think it will help their careers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


As America prepared to dedicate the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., our military took part in the violent overthrow of the government of Libya. We talk about non-violence, but we act violently. We simultaneously praise both Dr. King, who relentlessly preached and practiced peaceful methods, and the Libya insurgents who, with the help of some of the world's mightiest armies, including our own, mounted a bloody revolution.

The question used to be whether the ends justified the means, and the American answer was “no.” Lately, the means aren't even questioned. We have the power to topple governments, and we use it. The only time our use of force is questioned is when it doesn't work smoothly, like when one of our helicopters crashes and some Americans die. But then the question isn't whether we should have been using violent means; the question is why the mission didn't go as planned. We accept the violence without even thinking about it.

We also don't give much thought to the “ends.” Why were we so eager to destroy Libya's government? Was it acting very differently from how it was acting just a short while ago, when we were praising and supporting it? Does the fact that oil prices dropped as soon as the coup was successful shed any light on what we were trying to achieve?

Eight years into the war in Iraq, we still haven't come to an agreement about why we invaded, and why we are still there. The same holds true for Afghanistan. If we have a coherent foreign policy, nobody is making it clear to the American people what it is.

It is difficult to debate whether the ends justify the means if we have no ends in mind. If all we have are military means, nothing needs to be justified. Military power becomes it own justification. It seems preposterous, but we may just be fighting simply because that is what we know how to do. We fight because we fight. We don't fight to win, because we aren't trying to win anything. And we will never stop fighting, because there is no victory possible without a goal that can be achieved. I think Dr. King understood that if we accept violence as a means, it could become the ends also. And I am afraid that is what has happened.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I was at a Muslim friend's house for Iftar, a meal that breaks the daily fast that Muslims observe during the holy month of Ramadan. My friend and his family like to share this tradition with non-Muslims, to promote interfaith understanding. As we departed he jokingly said that next year I should bring some bigoted friends so that they would see for themselves that Muslims are not hatching terrorists plots to take over the world. I delight that he can joke about the public perception of Muslims in America, and yet how sad it is that on a holy day, he must be conscious of the bad feelings some people have for people who share his faith.

With the passage of time, many Americans who became inflamed against Muslims after the September 11 attack have calmed down. They have listened to and read articles by informed people and have learned that a single criminal act does not define an entire religion. Even though there aren't very many Muslims in America, some people have also gotten to know a bit about Islam through personal contact in the past few years, and their fears have disappeared. Still, there are a few self-proclaimed experts, jumping in front of whatever cameras they can find, who continue to incite suspicion of all Muslims. These hate-mongers don't represent America any more than a few bombers represent Islam. But oddly, they manage to get an audience.

A short while ago, the news from England showed people burning buildings and looting stores. Simultaneously, people in the Middle East continued to rebel against dictatorial regimes, and Israel and its neighbor continue to shoot at each other. Political violence in the world is frightening, but people seem to find it tolerable as long as it is thousands of miles away. The prospect of this kind of violence showing up on our own streets is scary, so it makes sense that people who want to frighten Americans would focus on foreign violence and try to convince us that it will be brought here by people whose religion is popular elsewhere.

Why are some people trying to frighten us in this way? They would say that they are patriots, alerting us to a threat. But they must know by now that the threat is not real. Why do they persist? I'm sure that some of them are just in it for the money they make as speakers and authors. But some of these fear-mongers have support from people and institutions. What do the people behind the spokespeople gain from the hatred and the fear? And why have they chosen hatred and fear as their tools? There are other ways to influence people.

I don't have the answers to these questions. To simply say that the haters are evil doesn't really tell us much. To say that they are simply mistaken or fools is no more enlightening. To see conspiracies where they cannot be proved is not useful. But how revealing it is that the response of my friend, and so many in his community, is to laugh at the intolerance, to open their doors to people of all beliefs, and to quietly affirm their faith in the future and in Allah.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Our local police charged a young man with possessing marijuana at a suburban train station. They learned of his crime via surveillance cameras that were purportedly installed in order to protect passengers and the station itself. I haven't seen the surveillance tapes, but it is almost a certainty that the man was alone in the station, because, except for the morning rush hour, there is hardly ever anyone in that station. Since the man was not charged with any other crime, he obviously was not damaging the station or a threat to passengers or anyone else. He was just there, smoking.

A couple of days earlier, I was in the park just down the road from that station, enjoying the outdoors. Along came a police officer on an all-terrain vehicle, dashing all over the park for no obvious purpose. Another officer was riding his motorcycle on the footpath through the park, also for no observable reason. The two officers kept buzzing around, making noise, using gasoline, pumping exhaust into the air, and generally creating a hazard to anyone who might be lying in the grass or taking a stroll.

Little objection was heard when it was announced that Chicago was going to add more surveillance cameras to the thousands that are watching people as they walk and shop and bank and ride buses and trains and try to enjoy themselves outdoors. No one seems to care anymore that we are quickly headed into a constant surveillance society, where there is no privacy. The refrain is that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't be concerned that someone might be watching you. I disagree.

Where are kids supposed to court, if they can't stroll through the park without being leered at by some bored cop, and maybe watched online? Where are they to steal their first kiss, if there is a camera around every corner? What happens to romance if the whole world really is a stage?

Women's rights to have abortions were guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court as part of their right to privacy. Anti-abortion protesters have tried to intimidate women who seek abortions by taking their pictures as they enter abortion clinics. How much easier it will be for the anti-abortionists if the government does their surveillance for them. People who want to purchase birth-control pills or condoms face the same future.

What becomes of the right to political dissent if people can be surreptitiously followed by camera from a rally, onto a train, and right to their front steps? What hope is there of stopping police misconduct if the police can silently observe every meeting between a reporter and a government official who is critical of the police?

Once considered a paranoiac's fantasy, we have learned that our own government is already using satellites, robotic aircraft, cellphone taps, automobile GPS devices, and Internet snooping to track individuals and target them for arrest or assassination.

Of course, the early targets are those that the public has little sympathy for. Alleged terrorists, drug users in train stations, people crossing borders. But if the government can use all this technology to stop those crimes, why shouldn't it be able to use the same tools to spy on people in their own homes as they fill out fraudulent income tax returns? What is going to keep the police from silently panning the cameras in the parks in other directions, to look over the fences and into the bedrooms of people living near the parks? Why shouldn't the government be allowed to use the microphones in your telephone handsets to listen to everything you say in your home, just in case you are plotting something?

No, it is not just criminals who should be concerned about pervasive surveillance. Anyone who likes to enjoy the solitude of nature, anyone who wants to pull back the drapes and let the sunshine into their house, anyone who thinks that kids should occasionally be allowed to escape parental supervision so they can grow to maturity should feel nervous when they see a camera lens staring at them. And they should feel nervous when they don't see the camera, because it may be concealed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What People Do

My wife and I sat in a hospital waiting room with a friend while her husband was undergoing surgery. We were there to distract her from the worries that might otherwise overwhelm her. We talked about this and that until the doctor came out and said the operation went well and she could soon go to her husband's side.

While we were there, another woman sat by herself, waiting. I struck up a conversation with her and learned that she was waiting for her father to come out of surgery, at which time she would be able to go to another hospital to see her mother, who had been rushed into the emergency room there. She seemed to like having someone to talk with for a while as she waited.

Some religions teach that we are commanded to help people when they need help, although it seems that the notion of a directive from the all-powerful is remarkably easy for people to construe as not binding on them. The feeling that one is obligated to help others seems to have withered in this capitalist society, where we are told that if anything is worthwhile, someone should be paying money to get it. Recently, a lot of people are also saying that the government shouldn't help people either, or at least that government shouldn't help people based upon their need for help. These misanthropes say that only people who deserve help should get it, and they view neediness as a divine indication of unworthiness.

My mother used to tell me that there are things we do because that's what people do. There was no question of whether these things had to be done or what would happen if they weren't done. They were just the things to do. Not the right thing, not the good thing, not the holy thing, not the kind thing, and certainly not anything a person should feel self-righteous for doing. There are some things, she would remind me, that people do whether or not it is convenient, regardless of who else did them, and irrespective of whether anyone would know you had done them. You did them without a thought of whether you would be repaid, in this life or another. You did them because someone needed them done.

Some day my wife or I may be sitting in a hospital, waiting for a surgeon to come out. Some friend or stranger may help the one of us who is waiting to pass the time. They won't do it to repay us for our vigil today. They will do it because their mother or father taught them that if you are fortunate enough to be able to help people, you do. That is what people do.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Shoot the Children

Walk or drive through certain neighborhoods in Chicago, and you will see signs on lampposts that say, “Don't shoot. I want to grow up.” Of course, that assumes that you have the courage to walk or drive through those neighborhoods. Or, as some would think, it assumes that you are foolish enough to walk or drive there. Because in those neighborhoods, people are shot nearly every day.

Who gets shot? Children and adults. People on their way somewhere and people just hanging out. People with enemies and people who are mistaken for someone with enemies. People who are there just get shot, a lot more than people who are somewhere else.

Not many people get shot in suburbs like the one where I live. Every so often, some kid picks up his father's gun and accidentally shoots himself or a sibling or friend. Every now and then someone commits suicide. Every now and again someone gets mad at a spouse or boyfriend, or mistakes their kid coming home late at night for a burglar and shoots her. But that's about it. The shooting is stupid, but pretty much stays within the home.

But in other neighborhoods, public shooting is part of the daily routine. Yes, these are poor neighborhoods. Yes, they are neighborhoods that don't get much in the way of services from the city, except when someone gets shot. Then the police show up and make a show of having a presence in the community.

We live in different worlds, just a few miles away from each other. In one world, people walk on sidewalks at night gazing at the stars. There aren't many streetlights. There aren't any flashing blue lights on police surveillance cameras. People feel safe, and they are safe.

In the other world, you never know if you can make it to the corner store safely. You are afraid to sit out on your stoop. You lock your kids indoors.

What would happen if kids and their grandparents started getting shot in my neighborhood in drive-by shootings? I can't even imagine. It wouldn't be tolerated. People would be hysterical. There would be meetings all night and day, and cops thick as mosquitoes by the pond.

So why aren't the people in my neighborhood demanding an end to the shooting? Why don't we object when someone gets shot in some other neighborhood? How can we be so complacent, so myopic, so insensitive, so self-centered? Why do we hear so much about the right to own and carry guns, and so little about the lunacy of having guns? Because when it's not you being shot, it's easy to ignore the shooting. So easy. Too easy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Unequal Justice

Court systems across the country have recently been opening special courts for veterans who get in trouble with the law. It turns out that a lot of veterans get into trouble. According to one court that has set up a special court for veterans, nearly three quarters of a million veterans are currently awaiting trial or serving some sort of sentence for crimes they were convicted of.

The aim of these special courts is supposedly to help veterans who have drug or alcohol addictions or other problems learn to get along in society, now that they are no longer part of the separate military society. It sounds like a worthwhile goal, but these programs are dangerous.

It wasn't so long ago that judges in U.S. courts would give an accused lad a choice – go to jail or join the army. Sure, it sent a bunch of misfits into the military, but the military was supposedly used to dealing with misfits. They had strict discipline, and they turned boys into men. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't, but in the meantime, and in wartime, local judges were viewed as being patriotic for helping to fill the military's recruitment quotas. Until recently, no one paid much attention to the kinds of havoc misfits caused once they were wearing the uniform and carrying guns.

Military personnel still receive special treatment when they commit crimes while they are in the military. While in service, they are generally immune from prosecution under the laws that govern civilians. If they commit crimes, they get to be tried not by juries of their peers and judges who are elected or appointed according to the law, but instead they are tried by military tribunals, where the procedures and sentences are different. The attitudes of the people doing the judging are also different. The judges in military tribunals are all in the military themselves and are concerned about the image and morale of the military, in addition to whatever concern they might or might not have for victims, particularly for victims who are in distant lands and unfamiliar cultures.

Now, with the creation of special courts for veterans, offenders are given special treatment not only while they are in service, but for the rest of their lives after they have left the military, even if they were thrown out of the military. The special courts have special judges who are supposed to understand the problems that veterans have. The special courts hand out special punishments instead of sending veterans to jail, and they allow convicted veterans to wipe their records clean at the end of their sentences so that no one will ever know about the bad things they did.

To the extent that the veterans' courts are responding to drug and alcohol addiction by veterans, some of these provisions seem reasonable. But since these same sorts of provisions are already in place for non-veteran addicts, there doesn't seem to be any need to treat the veteran addicts any differently. By setting up veterans' courts, politicians can cut funding for programs that help ordinary addicts, but still seem to be helping veterans.

Our courts have treated different groups differently before. Blacks and and poor people have experienced different treatment from whites and the wealthy for a long, long time. But at least in theory, the goal was always equal treatment under the law. Now, with veterans courts, we are establishing courts which have the express goal of special treatment for some people.

I am concerned that one group of accused people will be getting better treatment than another. But I am more concerned that society in general will be deprived of whatever measure of justice our courts are capable of delivering. When judges are pre-disposed to protect the accused, the victims are at risk. When veterans' records of convictions are erased, the public is misled. When judges know that they are serving a special group which has a lobby that is powerful enough to affect the judges' careers, the judges will judge differently.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided a long time ago that “separate but equal” cannot be equal. The people who are setting up veterans courts know that, and they are deliberately making sure that the “justice” for veterans is separate from the “justice” for non-veterans. It is obvious why they are doing this, and sad that they are getting away with it. Eventually, it will result in two sets of criminal law rules: those that apply to most people, and those that apply just to veterans. It will also result in two sets of criminals, ordinary criminals, and veteran criminals who know they are going to get special treatment. Does the military really want to become known as the place our elite criminals come from?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bachmann Unmasked

Just reading what Michele Bachmann is like doesn't tell the complete story. Neither does just listening to her. To understand her appeal, you have to watch her as she responds to questions, because then you will realize that not only doesn't she answer the questions, she smirks and smiles her way through the interview. Just like George W. Bush did. He became president. So could she.

In the interview that I watched on television, she gave the same evasive answer to a question three times as the interviewer tried and tried again to get her to answer the question directly. When the interviewer gave up and moved on, she did the same thing to all of his following questions. To someone who wanted to know what she thought on the topics she was being questioned about, it would be a frustrating experience. She just wouldn't say. But to all the fundamentalists who already know what she believes, it didn't matter that she didn't answer. They know that the answer to every question can be found in the Bible, and that Bachmann reads the Bible the same way they do.

Bachman's approach was exactly the approach Bush used when he was running, right down to the smirks and smiles that signaled to his supporters that he and they really didn't care what the reporter asked or what the non-fundamentalist public wanted to know. Bush knew that the only people who mattered were fundamentalists, and that everyone else was ungodly and doomed anyway. The reporter was doing the devil's work, trying to bring Bush down and lead the people away from the Truth, so it was OK to lie to the reporter and evade his unholy questions.

Bush thought it was perfectly all-right to lie about Saddam Hussein and non-existent weapons of mass destruction because, in the big picture, heathens were undeserving of his respect – they didn't subscribe to his world view. Bachmann was doing a perfect imitation of Bush when she wouldn't explain her previous statements about homosexuals and about her Christian obligation to be submissive to her husband. She knew what she had said on other occasions, she knew that her fundamentalist voting base agreed with her, and she didn't give a damn whether her contradictory statements made sense to some humanistic secular reporter or not.

I remember people dismissing Bush as an unelectable former drunk who did poorly in school and evaded his military obligation, failing his way through life on his family's fortunes. But all that was just human frailty to his supporters, unimportant to them once he told them he had been born again. He said he listened to a higher father, and they knew he was talking their language. Bachmann is doing the same thing.

Will the Republicans nationwide elect Bachmann, having seen the mess Bush made of the government and the country? Of course they will! The reward they seek isn't of this world, so they don't care whether she'll screw it up or not. She knows the Way, so they'll vote for her, unless some other candidate demonstrates that he or she is even more zealous than she is. I suspect that is what the other Republican candidates will set about trying to do as the primary and caucus season progresses. The issue is no longer whether there should be a separation of Church and State. State no longer even matters.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Marching In Parades

I have marched in seven parades this summer with a candidate I am supporting. Sometimes it seemed like a marginally productive effort. In the most recent parade, the parade organizers placed my candidate in the spot right behind his opponent. Each campaign had volunteers carrying a banner with their candidate's name, and each candidate ran along the route shaking hands with the onlookers. A few times, the candidates literally bumped into each other. The candidates were each, by coincidence, wearing light blue shirts. One candidate was a bit taller than the other. One was a little older. One a little heavier. But I would doubt that many of the people they met along the route, most of whom smiled at each candidate and shook each candidate's hand, remembered either candidate's name five seconds after the candidates marched past them.

Parading is often viewed as more of an obligation than an opportunity. If a candidate fails to show up, he is more likely to be remembered for his absence than he would have been for his presence if he had been there. To not march in a town's parade is to say to the town, “I don't care about you.” So the candidates march, knowing that their opponents will spread the word if they don't show up.

It wouldn't seem as if anyone should vote for a candidate just because they shook the candidate's hand, and most people probably don't, especially if they have shaken both candidates' hands. The candidates' positions and backgrounds and records should be what influences who wins and who loses. And those are, to a great extent, what matters. Parades don't. But parades aren't a waste of time. They are actually very important, but not because of the votes they bring in.

Parades are important because they give the candidates an opportunity to hear from a whole lot of people in a very short time. If people have something they want a politician to know, and they can see that the politician only has a couple of seconds for them, they will hold onto the politician's hand and tell them in very terse language what they want to tell them. People who need jobs will tell the candidates “I need a job.” People who are against a war will tell the candidates, “Stop the damn war.” People who want lower taxes will say, “Stop raising taxes.” Parade watchers boil their concerns down to bumper-sticker length. In the hour or two that it takes to walk a parade route, candidates who listen can learn a lot about what is on the voters' minds.

But beyond just learning the messages that parade watchers give them, candidates can learn the mood of the electorate, too. People sometimes boo or shout angrily at a candidate who displeases them. People sometimes cheer. A few people throw things. The mood of the crowd can differ depending upon which political party dominates a region, and the mood of any crowd is a pretty good indicator of how they feel about the direction the country is going.

People who haven't seen the inside of a political campaign like to belittle politicians for shaking hands and kissing babies and eating funnel cakes at carnivals, and politicians who do these things just for the photo opportunities deserve the criticism. But politicians who embrace these public events as chances to get amongst the people and talk with them at their own level, in their own neighborhoods, move into their campaigns with a real advantage over opponents who rely on consultants to tell them what the voters think.

Some people complain that politicians shouldn't politicize July 4th, or Memorial Day, and some parade organizers even try to keep candidates out of their parades. But I hope the politicians never stop glad handing at parades. Parade watchers aren't a scientifically selected sampling of the voters. They are just real folks, who in the immediacy of an unexpected chance to tell a politician a thing or two, will tell it straight up. So long as politicians are listening to them, and not just to the pollsters, democracy may survive.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Pundits Fail Us

I recently chatted with a reporter for a mainstream, D.C.-based publication. A personable and sincere fellow, and a skillful writer. His assignment from now until the November 2012 elections is to cover half of the U.S. Senate and House races. That's 217 House races and 16 Senate races, each of which will have at least one and often several candidates. He is supposed to report on several hundred candidates, many of whom he may never meet. Obviously, he has an impossible job.

What could he or any of the other reporters with similarly overly-broad assignments, know about any of the districts? Without spending significant time in a district like the 10th, would they understand the social, political, economic, racial, educational, religious, and other differences to be found among towns like Libertyville, Waukegan, and Buffalo Grove? Would they know the difference between Lake Forest and Lake Bluff? Will they know the history of factionalization among Democrats in one part of the district, or the personalities who influence opinion in another? Will they understand the suasion that some religious leaders have on the voters in their congregations, and the duplicity of others? No, nope, no way. These out-of-town instant experts will know almost nothing about the races they are expounding upon.

So, what will they write? They will write about how much money each of the candidates raises, because it is one of the only things they can write about and seem informed without really knowing much about the races they are reporting on. From a distance of a thousand or more miles, based solely on numbers in the Federal Election Commission's online disclosure database, they can pass judgment on which candidates are strong and which weak, which are ahead and which behind, which likely to prevail and which to fail; in political terms, who shall live and who shall die.

We who live in the districts from one end of this vast country to another know much more. But amazingly, many of us read these pundits and give them credence. Some candidates will drop out of races because the analysts, looking only at fundraising numbers, tell them they can't win. Some potential candidates will decide to not even enter races once the number crunchers tell them they are running behind financially. Some people who would otherwise have contributed to candidates will decide not to, because some columnist, who probably can't pronounce the names of the candidates he is writing about and hasn't set foot in their districts, convinces them that they would be wasting their money on doomed campaigns.

If we accept the notion that all a pundit needs to know in order to predict an election is the fundraising numbers, we don't need elections at all, and we certainly don't need pundits. We could all just count the money and declare a winner, without a single person needing to cast a ballot. It seems that is what the U.S. Supreme Court wants to happen, and I am sure that is what certain bankers and hedge-fund managers and financiers want. They believe that money makes the world go round, and they are the ones with the money. But they don't know that Round Lake isn't entirely round, that North Chicago is miles away from Chicago, and that there aren't many deer in the field or buffalo in the grove anymore. And they don't know nearly as much as the voters do about which candidates are campaigning hard and which are just posing for photos to put in a brochure, which candidates answer questions and which duck them, which seem to enjoy being with people and which seem ill-at-ease, which have a passion and which simply have a stump speech, and which candidates have been working in their districts on local issues and which candidates appeared on the scene just in time to declare their candidacies.

We could let the pundits make our decisions for us. They'd be happy to do it, writing from faraway. But they don't have to live with the results of our elections. We do.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Not Heroes

A major network television news anchor, in reporting on the deaths of some U.S. military personnel, called them all heroes. What had they done to be considered heroes? The report didn't mention anything. Apparently all they needed to do was to be killed, and they were automatically supposed to be our heroes. This kind of editorializing has been common throughout the news industry since we first invaded Iraq. Every eighteen-year-old who is blown up by a roadside bomb is referred to as a hero. Every soldier who is shot, even if shot by one of his fellow soldiers in “friendly fire,” is a hero. Even soldiers who are injured in car accidents are referred to as heroes. Every member of the military who is welcomed home, injured or not, is greeted as a hero. No reasons given and no questions asked.

Well, what about everyone else? What about the guy who tried to get into the military but flunked the physical – is he a hero because he tried to be one? What about the guy who tried to get in but couldn't because of his criminal record – is he a hero because a year later the military started letting in guys like him? Is he a hero because he could have been one if he had volunteered a year later? What about the guy who didn't even try to get into the military because his family needed him at home? Is he a hero because he might have been one if he wasn't taking care of his family? What about the guy who served his entire military career pushing papers stateside while other guys were doing the fighting? What did he do that was heroic? What about the guy who remotely controlled a drone aircraft that blew up a house with children in it because someone who thought there were terrorists in the house told him to? What kind of hero is he?

And what about the guy who didn't apply because he didn't think our current wars should be fought? Isn't he a hero for standing up for his convictions? And the guy who didn't apply because he doesn't think any war should be fought – isn't he even more of a hero? And what about all those guys who refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War? Aren't they heroes for showing us that war is not the answer to our problems? How about the men and women who protested in the streets of Chicago and D.C. to try to prevent the invasion of Iraq? Aren't they heroes for showing us what democracy is supposed to be about, and for not being intimidated into silence by their own government?

I choose my own heroes. I'm willing to listen to a reporter who has some information that might lead me to conclude that an individual acted heroically. But news anchors who label every soldier a hero, just because they are part of the military establishment, give me very little basis for judging. Years ago, when a news anchor gave is own opinion, words would appear on the TV screen telling us that that portion of the broadcast was an editorial, or opinion, or commentary, so that we would not think they were just doing an unprofessional job of reporting the news. We don't see those signs anymore. The propaganda just gets mixed in with the news, and mixed in so well that we might not even notice.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poverty Tour

Along with about a dozen friends I sat in St. Sabina church on Chicago's south side listening to radio personality Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornell West and Minister Louis Farrakhan talking about poverty. The church was filled with about a thousand people. The stained glass windows were beautiful, as was the wood carving adorning the walls. The audience included not only the African Americans who regularly worship there, but also people of other national origins. There were Muslims and Christians and Jews, and probably some who follow other religious teachings, or none at all. There were young people and old people, men and women. It was the kind of audience every liberal likes to be part of.

But as diverse as the crowd was, there was a glaring absence among the speakers: none of them was poor. That didn't detract from what they were saying. Each of them had a perspective on poverty and may have even experienced hard times at some point in their past. Each had obviously encountered poor people, and had important things to say about what poverty does, what causes it, and what they believed should be done about it. But their speeches, strong and impassioned as they were, lacked the element of credibility that could only have been supplied by poor people telling their own stories of poverty in today's world.

From a political standpoint, the lack of a poor person's voice will hamper the roadshow that these personalities are taking around the country. I recall the Poor People's Campaign organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the photos of sharecroppers in overalls. The dignity of ordinary folks marching arm in arm with an internationally recognized leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The unspoken affirmation that all people were entitled to a share of the wealth that was concentrated among a very small portion of the populace. That was missing from the presentation at St. Sabina.

I do not point out this shortcoming in order to criticize the effort that is being made to bring attention to poverty. The organizers of the tour are to be commended for courageously trying to call attention to an issue that has been almost entirely absent from the public consciousness for many years. Their task is daunting. Their goals is worthwhile. I make my observation in the hope that it will prompt some change in the way the tour is presented to the public in other cities. Reducing poverty will required a movement, not just a lecture series. A movement cannot successfully be waged on behalf of people who do not participate in the movement. If poor people deserve our help, they deserve our respect, and their voices should be included. They should be on stage, not just in the audience as they were at St. Sabina.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cost of War

Months before President George Bush allowed the U.S. military to invade Iraq, people gathered in homes and libraries to talk about whether we should go to war. The concern was sometimes raised that the war would be expensive for the U.S., although that was generally not the major objection voiced by those who went on to protest against the war. The anti-war community was mainly concerned with the killing, not the cost. The enormous cost of the war was only occasionally raised during the public debate, in an attempt to convince Republicans that war was a bad idea. Because they seemed unconcerned about the destruction and loss of life, it was hoped that, being Republicans, they might respond to an argument that the war would cost them money.

As we all know, Republicans put aside their usual concerns about fiscal responsibility and endorsed the war, saying that we should kill no matter the cost. That was the way President Bush handled the war, keeping it out of the federal budget, and it was how the Congress funded it, with no limits. As we all now know, the war was so expensive that it was a major cause of the extended economic slump that the country is now in. Billions and trillions of dollars spent blowing things up and occupying foreign lands eventually added up to billions and trillions of dollars that couldn't be spent here in the U.S. on homes and roads and public services and jobs.

Now, all of a sudden, some in the Republican party, pushed by the Tea Party regressives, are talking about how much the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya are costing. They are even saying we should remove our troops and stop the wars. Not a word from them about the killing, but plenty of concern about how expensive the killing has gotten. They are asking what we are getting and what we are fighting for, and forgetting that when anti-war Americans asked these questions they labeled us as traitors and cowards.

Those of us who have been speaking out against the wars welcome the newcomers, hopeful that their well-rested voices will increase the political pressure to stop the killing. We are hopeful that they will work alongside us toward this important goal, even though they have been so insistent in the past that we have nothing to teach them and that we should not be listened to. So far there is no evidence, though, that a coalition is forming. All that has emerged is two groups seeking the same goal but for different reasons and acting independently of one another.

It is understandable that the leaders of the regressives would not want much discussion between their followers and the anti-war folks, even though the latter have years of experience working in this realm which the regressives could benefit from. If the two groups got to know each other's ideas, each might learn from the other. The regressives would learn that human life is sacred and should be valued above all else. It should not be sacrificed for corporate profits or to insure the flow of oil or to give the US military more bases overseas. What would the anti-war folks learn from the regressives? That money is the only thing that matters, and that when the economy improves we can start more wars because we will be able to afford them? It is understandable that the leaders of the regressives would fear that one message would be more powerful than the other.