A citizen speaks

My crusty retired neighbor caught me on the way home. “I assume you are not working,” he said. When I confirmed he was sympathetic and  went on a tirade about his disapproval of Congress and politics in general, adding, “Twenty-four years as a federal employee and thirteen as a state employee. I can take it without K-Y now.”

“Ah, I’m just venting,” he also said.

Democracy shut down

I’m beginning my third day of furlough as the federal government is shut down.

There are those who take issue with the term “shutdown,” arguing the government is not truly closed, just limiting its operations. Which I tend to agree with, in the the sense that  government operations cannot simply be abandoned if we plan on ever coming back to them. As a case in point, NPR reports how National Parks are physically closed, with park rangers  enforcing the closures, though other public lands like national forests are not. How lovely if poachers and looters and could get a break from the onerous preservation laws in national parks! Alas, those laws are still in effect, therefore the parks are closed.

The shutdown is more like a conservative fantasy: environmental regulars and tax auditors are sent home while border guards and the people who spy on us are not. It amounts to an evasion of laws Congresses have already passed and the usual procedure of repealing unwanted laws. In other words, nothing more than a subversion of our democracy.

Explosion Week

It’s Explosion Week here in America. If you’re keeping score, that’s one terrorist attack in Massachusetts and one industrial accident in Texas.

And as usual, we’re freaking out about the wrong things. Boston was deserted today because the cops lost track of one 19 year old kid who they think can make kitchen appliances explode. We don’t know hardly anything about the sickos who did it but whoever they’re working for just got handed a quick little victory and an important lesson in the efficacy of blowing stuff up in the United States. That dumb Hitler, he wasted all his effort on his mighty war machine when he could have shut us down with a few well-placed pressure cookers.

Yet I doubt cops in tanks will descend on West, Texas looking for the probably negligent operators of the fertilizer plant that exploded (if they weren’t incinerated in the blast). Not only was that explosion more deadly and more destructive, but tragedies like it (Texas City Refinery, Upper Big Branch Mine, Deepwater Horizon) occur far more often than disgruntled Chechens register their disgust with long-distance running. But don’t let that distract you from the fugitive drama unfolding in Beantown.

Global undemocracy

Of interest to the curious part of me are news stories about how the Holy See selects a new pope. The process is opaque and undemocratic. The Roman Catholic Church has the additional distinction of being something of a medieval principality, but the selection process is not unlike how other, more modern global organizations— the UN, World Bank, IMF, corporations, and other NGOs— select their leaders. And I wonder if the church, for all its 3rd century baggage, might provide a window into our future world. As we achieve globalization without also pursuing global democratization, can we look forward to global institutional leadership that is just as distant, inflexible, reactionary, and unaccountable?

Sequestered

This week at work some visitors have asked me about the effects of the sequester on the park. I won’t get into my answer here, but it’s on people’s minds.

I keep coming back to something I saw on the news— it must have been PBS News Hour and I wish I could find the story now—about the sequester and its effects on national parks. Somewhere in there an analyst from the Brookings Institute said they should be fine. Specifically, the reports showed here scrolling through some spreadsheet on her computer, nodding her head, and saying something like, “They should be fine.” And I thought, “Thanks, lady with a pink sweater in an office, for clearing up how budget cuts affect parks.”

But that’s not really my point either. I’ll accept that, even with all the adverse impacts, national parks won’t disappear and that the world won’t end with even a five percent budget cut. What irks me is that “experts” like the pink-sweatered office lady are never challenged by the news media to account for this opinion or explain at what point they might change their reasoned analysis. Because just as we can’t keep raising spending on national parks forever, we can’t keep cutting them forever either. At some point the things they were created to preserve, and for us to enjoy, will crumble. So, for those whose line that the sequester is no big deal, or maybe even a good thing, at what percentage of a haircut will they not be “fine”? Or do you feel that the total elimination of all democratic spending will be a boon? If so, that’s fine, but you might as well come out and admit to being the errand-runner you are for corporations, rich people, and others who plan to continue benefiting more from our civilization while contributing ever less to it.

President’s Day

I was working yesterday, a typically slow February day in the park, when a visitor remarked that the place must be really busy on President’s Day. How charming that this gentleman thought Americans dash out to the nearest museum or national park to learn about presidents on President’s Day. But if all the people with their kids at the mall today were any indication, President’s Day is still a great day for shopping deals.

At Scheels, a right-wing sporting goods store, they have these bronze statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in front of the store entrance. Accompanying the statues are distorted, out of context quotations that make the founders appear to have favored a Christian theocracy as our form of government. Yet even Scheel’s was open for business on President’s Day. Apparently they would rather their employees and customers spend the day buying Under Armor products than reflecting on the founders’ legacy.

Having Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays rolled into one President’s Day guts it of any meeting. Its name sounds like it’s honoring all presidents, even one-month wonder William Henry Harrison and our own little-beloved Herbert Hoover. We already have two patriotic holidays glorifying our wars plus Independence Day. I don’t expect Americans, who don’t get very many days off, to turn into presidential scholars for a day. I give credit to the boosters of Martin Luther King’s Birthday, who have been trying to turn that holiday into a day of service (“a day on, not a day off”).

Zero Dark Thirty

In his 1991 book Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horwitz, a freelance journalist who lived in the Middle East during the 1980s, wrote about visiting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Persian Gulf War. While sightseeing in the capital, he sneers at a statue commemorating Saddam’s attempt to kill Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1959:

Iraq was the first country I had ever visited that enshrined an assassination attempt as the most glorious event in the nation’s history.

When I read that back in the 1990s, I shared Horwitz’s contempt for that nation which wrapped its identity in thuggish violence. Lately I’ve been reminded of it as we celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. I was glad to see the end of him but I don’t see it as anything worth celebrating. It took us ten years to track down and squash that miserable worm and in the meantime we let him warp our society. Don’t be so proud.

Another cycle on the tragedy machine

My brother once observed, “You’re only as safe as I am sane.”

This week ended with the occasional affirmation that my brother was right. Of course the President and everybody less important down to professional athletes has to say something about how horrible it is. We have this little ritual of political correctness for acknowledging tragedy: we say, “what a tragedy.” Our other ritual of mass grief is pretending that our obsession with gossipy details somehow constitutes empathy. Listening to part of a press conference with the medical examiner, a reporter asked what the victims were wearing. They were first graders, the doctor answered. That’s the sort of stupid-ass question reporters ask on our behalf.

And there’s the usual gun control navel-gazing that bubbles up around these occasions. I doubt anything will change. Earlier this year The Onion ran a satirical article with the headline “NRA Sets 1,000 Killed In School Shooting As Amount It Would Take For Them To Reconsider Much Of Anything”. Reliably, The Onion pretty much summed it all up for us six months ahead of time.

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that some tragedies are more tragic than others; that if twenty gunned-down college students or theater-goers won’t make us reexamine our society’s fetishes for guns and violence or its failures to provide adequate mental health care that somehow twenty gunned-down first graders will. If anything, the indulgent news coverage of previous mass shootings has simply prepared us to accept the murder of these small children in stride, and will help us rehearse our responses for later attacks on even more innocent victims.

The day after

Wait, what’s that sound? A phone… not ringing?

Now that this election is over, it seems like a lot of time, effort, and money just to maintain the status quo. I’m starting to suspect that’s what our political system is all about, though. I’m also very aware of the complete lack of substance in this presidential election. I honestly have no idea what Barack Obama intends to do with another four years, but in retrospect that’s not what this election was about. It was more about arresting the tide of crazy washing over this country. It indeed looks like the “Tea Party” was a mid-term fluke born of low voter turnout. According to yesterday’s results, when normal Americans actually show up to vote the outcome is fairly reasonable. I hope there is a lesson learned here.

Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

I submit this to article from The Atlantic, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” by Conor Friedersdorf to my friends and relatives (particularly my uncle), many of whom are good liberals justifiably terrified by the prospect of Mitt Romney (and whatever he stands for) and his conservative comrades entering the White House.

 

Blowing off political steam

In swing-state, first-caucus-in-the-nation Iowa, the presidential election has been going on since 2011. And tomorrow it will be over. Thank heavens. We’re sick of the phone calls. Half the time there is nobody on the other end, I think because the dialing systems are automated and wait for you to answer to before connecting the caller or the recording. If it sounds incredibly obnoxious, it is, and has endeared me to no candidate or party. Good riddance.

Speaking of politics, today’s Press-Citizen ran a vapid guest opinion column by Lee Hamilton, a former Congressman. It’s one of these periodic lectures about the decline of civil political discourse that newspaper editors and other self-important people feel obliged to unload on us. Nowhere in his column does Hamilton call out who is responsible for this degeneration of dialogue. That kind of pussy-footing around the problem is also part of the problem. I’m pretty sure we can identify the main culprits: they exist mostly in right-wing media outlets.

But it’s not entirely their fault, either. Consider the state of democracy in the United States of America. We’ll probably congratulate ourselves if fifty percent of eligible voters show up to vote tomorrow. Of those, because of the artifact in our constitution known as the Electoral College, candidates only court voters in a handful of toss-up states (like Iowa).

Within the swing-states there are swing voters, the undecided folks that candidate care about the most. These are the people who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and then, after he did pretty much everything he said he was going to do, decided they didn’t like him or his party and voted them out of office in 2006 and 2008. Really, you didn’t think the Iraq War would be a dishonest disaster? You didn’t think financial deregulation would destabilize our economy? Then, they voted for Barack Obama and were suddenly disappointed by… what, exactly? His promised passage of health care reform? That he wasn’t a magic fairy who would solve all our problems?

These are the people we can blame the decline of political discourse on. There is always room for thoughtful consideration of the candidates and the solutions they offer. But that’s not really what we’re talking about, is it? We’re talking about being influenced by the last negative ad, the last gaffe, the last poll numbers. We’re talking about these mindless running dogs of the corporate media, waiting for Brian Williams or Bill O’Reilly or whoever to tell them what to do. Lee Hamilton can save his little lecture for these few.

Leave them teachers alone

A story on NPR about research into motivating teachers got my attention. Researchers experimented with offering Chicago-area teachers different types of bonuses to see how they affected student performance (as measured by test scores). They found that test scores improved the most if the bonus was given to the teachers up front with the threat of taking it away when students didn’t perform.

(So what group of right-wingers conducted this research? Let’s see…, oh, economists at the University of Chicago. Figures. Wait, didn’t Milton Friedman already come up with the solutions to all of our economic problems? No?)

A couple of things gall me about this story. Why did the researchers choose teachers? Why not experiment on people in the Chicago area who are legitimately overpaid like hedge fund managers or CEOs or Theo Epstein? Take their perks away and see how they perform. But teachers are popular punching bags theses days, and no one needs an excuse to draw the inevitable conclusion that they don’t work hard enough. It won’t take a lot of imagination for someone to suggest dispensing with the bonus and simply take teachers’ pay away when the test scores don’t triple every year. Maybe the real problem with teacher motivation is the blame they get for your and your kids’ educational shortcomings.

Then the reporter admits at the end that the results have not been replicated or sustained. I can’t tell if this is bad research or bad reporting. Either way, NPR’s selection of which research breakthroughs to report on could be a little more rigorous.

Florida

During presidential election years the news media treats us to repeated reminders about why we should care about Florida. It’s a swing state, or “battleground” state, if you prefer applying warfare terms to everything unlike war. The Economist this week, as it does quadrennially, summarized the demographics that make it such a crucial place.

I find this all puzzling. I do not see how Florida, despite its recent performance in presidential elections, in any way or form could be considered a swing state. One wonders where all these Florida Democrats have been lately. The Florida legislature appears to have become a single-party Republican state. Would a state that votes for 21st century Democrats also have a skinhead governor and a gun law that amounts to a do-it-yourself lynching program?

Perhaps Florida doesn’t really matter all that much.  If voter suppression laws are the types of things Florida Democrats vote for, we’re just as badly off leaving the state to the Republicans in November. Then our president could stop worrying about what white Baby Boomer retirees in The Villages who don’t like black presidents and don’t want to pay taxes but want the rest of us to pay for their Social Security and Medicare think of him, and start focusing on more sensible states, if there are any left.