Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Dream Fulfilled

I like to have lunch by getting a sandwich and taking it down to the waterfront. There are lots of ships there, of course. The U.S.S Midway, a carrier with a long and noble history, is there to be toured, as are the Star of India, Berkeley, Californian and some other historical treasures. Cool stuff. The U.S.S. Reagan is in port across the harbor right now, and she gives new meaning to the term “really big ship.” I eat my sandwich and then stroll by the historical ships.

Two ships I omitted above are in port long term but temporarily. One is a Russian nuclear submarine, and the other is H.M.S. Surprise. Yes, as in Master and Commander. The set of books by Patrick O’Brian holds a place of honor in my bookcase (I have read all of them twice) and I have seen the movie so many times that my wife says I can quote the lines before the actors speak them.

The other day as I was gazing at Surprise a family of four came up. The kids, ages perhaps eight and ten, were more interested in tee shirts for sale than in any of the ships. The wife saw me smiling as I watched her family and, as her husband went off to buy tickets, told me, “He just finished reading book number twenty.” When he came back with the tickets we engaged in conversation and he said that this ship was why they had come here from Seattle on their vacation.

He gazed at Surprise with his eyes dancing as we talked, and I could see that our conversation was giving him a chance to prolong the anticipation so long enjoyed. We talked about reading the books and watching the movie as his kids looked for tee shirts and his wife looked on, sort of lovingly tolerant. I didn’t say a whole lot, I was just enjoying watching him as he eyed the ship while we chatted.

Then he wished me a nice day and walked up the gangway, his family trailing behind him, his head tilted way back to admire the forest of rigging, clearly enraptured as he at last realized his dream of treading the deck of H.M.S. Surprise.

It was a really nice lunch hour.

Politics of Fear

Our government wants us to be really, really afraid. It appears we aren’t afraid enough yet, or at least their poll numbers are not high enough yet, so they are getting their good friends and allies in the news media to help them make us more afraid.

The news media, you may recall, are owned by corporate giants who need favorable legislation passed and are currying favor with government to obtain that legislation by flooding Washington with huge sums of cash. Members of government, in turn, are returning some of that cash by buying huge amounts of campaign advertising in the media.

So the news media and government are involved in this circular, mutual back-scratching, sort of incestuous relationship.

Remember that plot hatched by the guys in Miami that were going to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago? To refresh your memory, none of them had ever been anywhere near Chicago, but they did have some photographs of security guards in Washington, DC. (I was never clear on what those photos had to do with the Sears Tower.) They were holding close order marching drill in full view of their Miami neighbors and had no weapons or explosives. Their only contact with Al Qaeda was a federal agent pretending to be Al Qaeda and they asked him for boots. This was a very dangerous bunch of people.

The Department of Homeland Stupidity announced the interception of this nefarious plot with great fanfare, and pretty much broke both arms patting themselves on the back. They were joined in the fanfare by the news media who trumpeted this great accomplishment at rather nauseating length, while saner heads tried to point out how absurd the whole thing really was.

Eventually the media and DHS had to let the whole thing sort of fizzle out, but no one ever seemed to be quite as embarrassed as the situation so richly deserved. (Someone did have the good grace to admit that they had intercepted the plot “more in the planning than in the execution phase,” which may be one of the truly great understatements of modern times.)

Fast forward now to August, when the mid-term elections are drawing near and the incumbent government’s poll numbers are dropping like an unopened parachute. I’ll be damned if this whole silly Sears Tower plot doesn’t suddenly reappear on the CBS Evening News (owned by the corporate giant Viacom).

Now we are being shown a film clip of the plotters in action. First we see the members stepping forward and “swearing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden” one-by-one. Well, at least that’s what we are told – this portion of the film has no sound track. It appears to be an incredibly short oath. It rather looks to me like they might be simply stepping forward and stating their names, but…

Next we see the leader and hear his complaints about not having any uniforms or boots. Finally we get to the reason that we this farce has been resurrected: we hear the leader saying that after he blows up the tower he’s going to, “..start a war and kill the devils,” adding, when prompted by the agent to say how many he’s going to kill, “millions.”

See, I told you it was scary. Better vote Republican, otherwise some clown who has no weapons or explosives, not even any uniforms or boots, is going to kill millions of us. Thank you CBS News, for reporting something that happened ages ago and that wasn’t newsworthy even when it did happen, in order to warn us about this horrendous danger, and to make sure that we vote Republican.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

American Priorities

I was watching a panel discussion on NPR that involved, among other things, the Supreme Court decision on Hamadan. I’m sorry to say I do not recall who the participants were, but one of them was asked to respond to the idea that the Hamadan decision was actually a positive in terms of our international image. His reply consisted of words to the effect of,

"My knee jerk reaction to questions of national security is to respond that it is of such importance that we should not care about our international image. National security is our first priority…"

He went on to ameliorate his stance somewhat and to acknowledge that poor international image is actually destructive to national security, but his adamant insistence on the priority of security gave me food for thought.

In a story I read not long ago a man was confronted with a scene where three men were beating and raping a young woman. He took it upon himself to intervene in her behalf and was killed for his trouble. He knew that he would most likely be killed, but the moral imperative of attempting to rescue her was bigger than his own need for survival. Wow.

That was fiction, and nations are not persons. But that man saw something bigger than the need for personal safety.

Prior to WW2 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, England took a firm stand. “Stop now,” they said, “or we will fight you.” It was not in the interest of their national security to declare war when Germany invaded Poland - England was not directly threatened. There was a need to stop Hitler that transcended the national security issue. There was a moral imperative to do what was right.

Moral imperatives do matter. They matter for individuals, and they matter for nations. Like it or not, we as a nation must walk in the community of nations. We are accountable to that community for our actions. Not only must our acts be moral and justifiable, so also must be our reasons for those acts and the manner in which we perform them.

When we perform immoral acts in the name of national security we lose the mantle of righteousness.

We cannot, for instance, in the eyes of the community of nations, claim torture to be a moral act merely because we do it in the name of national security.

When we invade and destroy another country in the name of national security, and it turns out that the country was not a threat to us (so we shift our reason to "spreading democracy"), we lose our membership in the community of righteous nations. Spreading our form of government at the point of a gun can never successfully be defended as a moral act.

I cannot determine for you what this country's first priority should be, but I know what it should be for me. I do not want my country to be a nation that uses torture. I do not want my country to be a nation that spies on its citizens without warrants, that arrests its citizens without due process, that tries anyone in a kangaroo court, or that imprisons anyone without access to legal counsel.

If turning my country into that kind of nation is the cost of keeping me safe, then let me die.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Asteriod protection

Headline: GOP does better on protection from terror, Dems on Iraq.

A recent CNN poll revealed that while people trusted the Democrats more when it comes to the War in Iraq (and pretty much everything else), they still prefer Bush and the Republicans when it comes to protecting them from terrorists. I am trying to figure out how that can possibly be. Why would people think that way? Because no more airplanes have flown into buildings in this country since 2001?

Well, no asteroids have hit us either, so obviously the Republicans are doing a fine job of protecting us from asteroids.

Under the Republicans the budget for airport explosives detection has been reduced, as has funding for protection of New York City, while Homeland Security is protecting a Dunkin Donuts in Nebraska. We are building nuclear submarines and anti-ballistic missile system systems, while only 10% of the cargo containers entering this country are inspected for dangerous materials. We are taking off our shoes before boarding airplanes, while virtually none of the air cargo that rides on those airplanes with us is inspected in any way at all.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security is apprehending such dangerous plots as clowns in Miami who are planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago by magical remote control and without any explosives, or flood Lower Manhattan despite natural laws mitigating against any possibility of success, or some poor mopes in Michigan who were actually just wholesaling cell phones.

It seems to me that the fact that no big bomb has come into one of our harbors on a ship, or an airplane has not blown a lot of people up, has very little to do with anything that the Republican Administration has done right.

I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m just not enough afraid.

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Climate of Fear

In a matter of days since the British stopped the airlines plot on August 10th we have witnessed something approaching hysteria in this country and in its news media:

  • A woman on an airliner has a panic attack which results in fighter plane escort and baggage spread out on the runway for inspection by bomb-sniffing dogs. False alarm.

  • The port in Seattle is evacuated and closed for hours due to suspicion of explosives in a container. Which turns out to be another false alarm.

  • Another woman in South Carolina who formerly lived in Pakistan is seen with water bottles and the airport winds up being closed and flights diverted. That one also turns out to be a false alarm.

This is exactly what the Bush-Cheney-Rove crowd wants to see. Precisely and exactly what they need if they are to keep their party in power, and once again they are pounding the drums of fear and “patriotism.”

George Bush says if we leave Iraq “..before the job is completed the terrorists will follow us home.” Cheney is accusing those who voted in disagreement with his wishes as giving aid to terrorists. They’ve done it twice before, and now they are at it again – playing the fear card to stay in power, playing the patriotism card to stifle dissent.

Many are saying it won’t work a third time, but I have some concern that it might. Bush and Company are pounding the fear drum hard, and the American people have listened to that drumbeat twice. One recent poll shows that, incredibly, 55% of the respondents approve of the job Bush is doing against terror.

The best response when confronted with a lie, with the falsehood of a failed policy, is not to argue or confront or rebut or explain, but merely restate the lie. Each time you restate the lie you do so more loudly, and in time that lie becomes believed. That process has been used with success by despots, dictators and demagogues for centuries, and it’s being used by George Bush now. And it’s working – another fairly recent poll showed that 45% believe that weapons of mass destruction were actually found in Iraq. More than 40% believe that Saddam Hussein was closely involved with the attacks of 9/11. I haven’t seen a poll of how many think that Iraq is really part of the larger “War on Terror”, but it is apparent that many people do think that.

At least this time the opposition is speaking out, but will the American people listen? Not if the opposition makes it about Iraq and Bush and Company make it about fear. And they absolutely can and will do that. They are doing that. The opposition is speaking out about Iraq, but that’s the wrong subject.

The American people are angry about the quagmire in Iraq. They are angry about the climate of corruption in Washington. But they are afraid of terrorists, and Bush and Company want to make sure that the fear of terrorists gets bigger and bigger as the mid-term elections draw closer.

If the opposition makes it about “Vote for us, there's a quagmire in Iraq,”
and Bush and Company make it about “If you don’t vote for us there will be a terrorist on every street corner gunning down women and children,”
guess who will win in November.

Bush and Company aren’t going to talk about Iraq, other than to use it as a threat of “the terrorists are coming.” They’re going to talk about fear, fear, and more fear. The opposition, Democrat and reasonable Republican, needs to counter that with talk about reason, restraint and courage. They need to expose the lie.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Who did what?

I’m trying to sort out just what role who played in apprehending the plot to blow up airplanes using liquid explosives. Doing that with only the news media as my source is not easy, since the media can only go by what they are told or can only quote what is said. The picture is, at best, cloudy.

George W. is saying that our anti-terrorism forces played a significant role, and we all know that the President of The United States of America would not falsely take credit, don’t we? (We do know that, right?) My problem is that I cannot find anyone else, either in this country or in Britain, that credits any US agencies with any constructive role. Well, I think Cheney has mumbled a few words, but…

The best picture I can get is that the British called and told us they had guys in their sights who were planning to blow up airplanes heading for America, but that they didn’t want to arrest them yet because the plot wasn’t very far along and they wanted to let it play out so that they could get the ringleaders. We freaked out and bullied the British into making the arrests right now, even though the perpetrators didn’t have any airline tickets (or even reservations) yet, and most of them didn’t even have passports at that point.

Well, as the British might say, aren’t we a plucky lot.

These are the same agencies (US of A) who prevented the nefarious plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. A plot being hatched in Miami by guys who had never been north of Atlanta and who were preparing for this plot by gathering in a warehouse and practicing close order drill in full view of dozens of onlookers. Guys whose only contact with Al Qaeda was an agent pretending to be Al Qaeda, and they asked him for boots. Not weapons or bomb-making material, mind you, boots.

Boy, I’m glad we dodged that one.

They also saved us from the plotters who planned to flood lower Manhattan by blowing up a tunnel that is carved in solid rock below water level. And Manhattan is, hello, above sea level anyway. These plotters didn’t possess any weapons or explosives, they had maps of New York City with X’s marked on them.

I mean, really, how seriously can we take unarmed plotters who don’t know what sea level is? At least they apparently were already adequately shod, because there's no reports of them asking our agents for any boots.

Then they saved us from the two guys with a hundred cell phones who were going to use them to blow up the Mackinac Bridge. What? I have studied my cell phone very carefully and it looks very non-explosive to me, but now I’m afraid to put it in my pocket. Oh, wait, they were going to use them as detonators. To detonate what? “Oh gee, I brought the detonators with me but I left all of my explosives at home. Silly me.”

I swear, this is just embarrassing. The British detect a threat, and our contribution is to interfere with them because a) we’re concerned that our hundred agents dashing all over the US with their hair on fire looking for more conspirators (they didn’t find any) might blow the British cover and b) we’re freaked out that they might mess up and let one or more bombers onto an airplane.

(Let's see. They detected the plot, and we're afraid they are going to screw it up. Right, just who is playing Keystone Cops here?)

And, of course we're waving our arms and screaming that the plot is tied to Al Queda; except, oops, maybe it's not.

The British have got to be rolling on the floor laughing at us.

I would be too, except that I do not have a nice warm fuzzy feeling that the hundreds of agents dashing all over the US looking for and not finding any conspirators had a single clue what they were doing.

Meanwhile, I need to go to North Island today and that means crossing the Coronado Bridge with a cell phone in my pocket.
Oh crap, is some federal agent going to stop me and think I left my bomb at home? I wish the British were on guard.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Essential Liberties

Those who would surrender essential liberties to purchase a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Benjamin Franklin

Arrests in the latest airline terrorist plot were triggered by the interception of a telephone conversation between two of the plotters, and apprehension of the group was facilitated by monitoring their financial transactions. So, of course, certain parties jump to the conclusion that the phone call and the financial transactions were culled from the random warrantless monitoring of billions of calls and transactions, and they are now calling for more US governmental authority to indulge in warrantless spying on the communications and business matters of Americans.

First, since the British had been monitoring this group for quite some time I strongly suspect that the telephone call was not randomly intercepted from billions of calls. Or even millions. Or even dozens. Okay, admittedly I don’t know that, nor do I know whether or not the authorities had a warrant. I haven’t read anything that says whether or not search warrants were involved but, given the circumstances surrounding the case, I have a strong idea that they were or at least could have been.

Likewise for the bank records. I don’t know for sure about the randomness of those observations either, but I have my doubts.

Both of those issues, however, beg the question of liberty versus safety, and it is that issue that is on my mind today.

I read a poll not long ago which said that a majority of those interviewed would approve of warrantless interception of telephone numbers and financial records if it would protect us from terrorism. That didn’t just bother me, it frightened me.

The men and women who founded this country faced dangers that we cannot even imagine. These people left the relative comfort of European homes and crossed an ocean in tiny ships, losing many of their number on the way, to arrive in a foreign land which was hostile and dangerous. They died of new and frightening diseases, they starved, they were killed by hostile people and by wild animals, they froze to death and died of thirst, they were killed in wars big and small. One of the first colonies in this “New World” vanished in its entirety with so little trace that we do not even know what killed its people.

They came in the face of terrible danger because the opportunity for freedom and liberty was more important to them than life itself.

I don’t think anybody knows what the rate was for the loss of life of those who founded this country. At Jamestown it was 100%, as it was at the Alamo. What was it overall? For the purpose of this discussion let’s imagine the smallest number that is within reason, 1.2%. Actually, that is an absurd number. The loss of life of those who settled this new land was certainly far higher than that, but fix that number in your mind nonetheless – 1.2%.

The terrorist strikes of 9/11 caused 3000 deaths and I would not, for any cause or to make any point, diminish that tragedy. Like the rest of the country, of the world, I stood stunned and angered that day, and wept for the loss of life and the loss to families and loved ones of those who died. I can still remember the sense of shock as I saw the first tower fall, and I recall feeling that the world had in some way fundamentally changed.

For that event to create change is inevitable and inescapable, but for it to change us as a nation to the degree that, almost five years later, we are willing to surrender essential liberties is shocking to me. For 9/11 to change what we do is one thing; for it to change who we are is something else altogether.

About 250 million people lived in the US on 9/11, so about one in 83,000 lost their lives to that terrorist strike. In fact, slightly under one in 83,000 of us have lost their lives to terrorists in the entire history of this country, even including the strikes which have occurred overseas. Again, I do not mean in any way to diminish the tradegy of those who have lost their lives, to detract from the meaning of that loss. It is real, it is tragic, and we must do all that is within our power to prevent that death toll from increasing.

But we must not, in the words of Ben Franklin, “surrender essential liberties to purchase a little safety.”

Our forefathers left a legacy to us, a great document. A truly incredible document. It’s called The Constitution of The United States of America and it embodies the principles that they risked their lives for: lost their lives for at a rate of 1.2% (for the purpose of this discussion). That meant that creating this New World meant one chance in 83 of losing their lives.

Our forefathers took a 1/83 risk with their lives to create this noble document, and we must not become unwilling to preserve it due to a risk that is 1/83,000: one thousand times less.

Right now we have 145,000 men and women (well, the number keeps changing, but…) overseas in harms way defending our country, defending the principles spelled out in The Constitution of The United States of America. More than 2600 of them have lost their lives. Roughly ten times that number have been wounded.

They are putting their lives on the line and we are cowering in our foxholes with the craven refrain of, “Yes I’ll give up my liberty, just keep me safe.”

What have we come to? What have we become?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Are you ready San Diego?

It’s NFL football season again. It’s Bolts time, and I’m going to go out on a limb.

It is my opinion that Drew Brees is an excellent quarterback and, more, that he is an outstanding young man. His work ethic and his dedication to the game of football and to his team are above reproach. He is smart, personable and a fine leader. I’m sorry to see him leave San Diego and I believe that New Orleans has gotten itself a fine quarterback.

That being said, I also believe that A. J. Smith is really, really smart and that he just does not make dumb mistakes. I suspect that he knows exactly what he has and what he is doing with the Chargers.

Brees simply never had a reliable long ball threat. He improved it, and that is greatly to his credit as it took great dedication and hard work to do so. But too many long passes were completed because the receiver was so wide open that he was able to adjust to a poorly thrown pass. Without arm strength Brees was not able to reliably throw on the run, nor when under pressure and unable to plant his body. Not enough to make him, by any means, a bad quarterback; just enough to make him a little too easy to defense.

Philip Rivers has a rifle for an arm and a Cray computer for a brain. He can throw long, he can throw on the run, he can throw with his arm while falling backwards, and he can reliably hit his target while doing all of that. I am predicting that Rivers is going to surprise a lot of people. This guy is simply no rookie. I think A.J. Smith knows that.

We won’t really know until September, but tonight we get our first peek. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited.

Are you ready for some football?

Paying the price

What’s wrong with this war in Iraq? Well, yes I know; a lot of things, but I want to focus on just one of them in this item and that is - who is bearing the cost?

In WW2 the entire country “paid the price” of war. In addition to the military draft, the civilian population did without rubber, gasoline and metals. They paid taxes and bought war bonds.

There was no rationing in Korea or Viet Nam, but there was still the draft and the civilian population still bore a tax burden to pay for the ongoing operation of the war.

Today we have young men and women on their third tour of duty in Iraq and facing a fourth because their armed forces are under-manned and the only strategy and hope that their leadership can offer is “stay the course.” The government strategy is tax cuts, a war cost that is “off budget” and pork barrel spending without end. Civilian strategy is “keep me safe” and reelecting anyone who will “bring the goodies to my home state.”

The entire cost of this war, financial and otherwise, is being borne by the men and women of our armed forces and their families.

Am I the only one who has a problem with this?

If a soldier survived his tour in Viet Nam he knew he would not have to go back. The odds of survival are better in Iraq, but many of our soldiers there are on their third tour of duty. They are not stupid either, they know there will be a fourth. Can anyone see an end to this madness? Can anyone show an endpoint to the men and women trapped in that hellhole of violence and death?

And the families wait at home, raising the kids as single parents. Hoping for the best, but living with the fear that a car will drive up to their home and an officer and uniformed chaplain will get out and approach their front door.

After a long, lonely, fearful wait; a joyful reunion for the fortunate. They thank God it’s over. They made it. And then they find out they have to do it all over again.

For the military and their families violence, death, loneliness,
anxiety and loss. For the rest of us the horror of $3.00 gasoline and congested freeways. How can we keep doing this?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Who best to lead?

Vice President Dick Cheney said the Lieberman defeat raised questions about whether the Democratic Party was prepared to lead the nation during dangerous times.

Well, is the Republican Party?

We read that the TSA diverted a large part of its explosives-detection research budget to operations, using it to hire screeners. The latest terror plot was discovered and stopped by the British, not by US agencies. What we hear from the Republicans is that "we need to fight them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here" but little seems to have been done to destroy the terrorist's ability to hit us "over here" since they are obviously still capable of planning complex operations and coming dangerously close to implementing them.

The most recent "report card" by the former 9/11 Commission members said both Congress and the President had failed to implement the reforms necessary to prevent and prepare for a future terrorist attack. The grades were dismal: five F's, 12 D's, nine C's, and only one A-minus. "Despite more than four years of legislation, executive orders and presidential directives," a Government Accountability Office report concluded, the Bush administration has "yet to comprehensively improve sharing of counterterrorism information."
Debunking the Cheny/Bush Myths
By Alan L. Roland

If this leadership was doing the kind of job that they want you to believe the Democrats cannot do, we would have caught or killed the masterminds. We would have disrupted their communication networks. We would have frozen or confiscated their money. We would have rendered them unable to plan or coordinate sophisticated attacks.

Instead what we have done is lose the sympathy of the entire free world, abandon a worthy battle against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, embroil ourselves in an apparently endless hellhole of violence in Iraq, and support and encourage a tempest of violence in Lebanon.

And all of this is supposed to have made the world, and us, safer?

Citizenship 101

I read an article (no longer online) by a young person who said that her generation “doesn’t believe in politics.” She made some interesting points, one of which is that older generations can remember a time when government was functional, when it did serve the people, but that her generation has seen only this partisan, corrupt, dysfunctional mess. Unstated in her article, but clearly implied, was that she believed that none of it will ever change.

“When I vote,” she said “it will be for the symbolic power of the action, not because I truly believe my voice will change anything.”

I agree with her that our system is broken, but it definitely can be fixed. And it is we the voters who can fix it. In fact, we are the only ones who can. Whether or not we will do so is another matter, one that worries me, but the solution is in our hands if we choose to use it.

It’s not politics, it’s democracy; and it works only when its citizenry is involved.

The current crop of politicians are in office because we elected them, and they remain in office because we keep re-electing them.

It’s All About The Power

The politicians have turned it into politics instead of democracy by disengaging the citizenry, by making it about personal, financial and ideological power instead of governance. It is to their advantage to keep it that way and if it is going to change then it is we the voters who must change it.

By the design of our Constitution, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are supposed to be contested every two years. In reality only about two dozen, approximately 5% of them, actually are. How can that be?

The politicians have carved out “safe districts” where they know how we will vote and they know their party will win the seat. The other party either doesn’t bother to run a candidate at all, or they put up someone who has about as much chance of winning as, say some retired movie actor running for governor of California. Well, okay, bad example.

The point is that we are voting the way they know we will. To change things we need to surprise them and not vote they way the politicians want us to, the way they have “programmed” us to vote.

It’s All About The Money

If a businessman simply pays a politician to pass a law favoring his business that would be bribery, which is illegal. So the businessman puts money into the campaign fund of the politician for no ostensible reason at all, or making the claim that it is purely because the contributor simply likes the contributee and in a very general way supports the contributee’s policies. Right.

What happens, though, is that the contributee then goes to work and gets a law passed that favors the contributor. He/she does that by “trading favors” with other legislators who have been similarly bribed (excuse me, who have also received campaign contributions) on a “I’ll vote for your contributor’s bill if you’ll vote for my contributor’s bill” basis.

Did you see the voters represented in that process? No, you didn’t. The politicians have taken the voters’ concerns and best interests out of the governing process.

You would think that politicians would care about voters, wouldn’t you? Isn’t it we who put them in office? No. It’s money that puts them in office and keeps them there. We let that happen and it’s up to us to change it.

It’s All About a “Circular Alliance”

Business and politics have formed a circular alliance that has disenfranchised the voters. That is a big word that means, quite simply, that they have taken away from us the power of the vote. (They have not, however, taken away the vote itself and as long as we have the vote we can work together to restore its power.)

A key player in this alliance, and the player that makes it circular, is the news media. The news media is owned by corporations who are paying the politicians for favorable legislation. You can’t curry favor with a legislator with cash while attacking that same legislator in the news, so…

In addition, those politicians spend huge sums purchasing advertising (those thirty-second spots) on, hello, the news media who, in turn, need to curry favor with one of their biggest customers.

As a result we have one network pandering shamelessly to one party and another network pandering with an equal lack of bashfulness to the other, while you and I are left wondering what the news really is.

It’s All About “Sound Bite” Advertising

In Dick Pohlman’s blog of Aug 22, about a conversation he had with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd he asked Dodd about the Democratic Party’s apparent fear that “standing up for civil liberties is a loser on the stump, especially when pitted against visceral concerns about personal safety.” Dodd replied,

“It takes several sentences to explain to people what the Democratic position is.”

When that happens in today’s politics, you will lose. It doesn’t matter what your position is, if it takes several sentences to explain it you will lose because it will take only one short sentence for your opponent to destroy your position.

That short sentence is contained in a thirty-second television message, and that’s where the money comes in. The politicians buy lots of those messages and pretty much literally inundate us with them. Those short messages don’t even have to be true statements, and they frequently aren’t, but the politicians count on those messages, those “sound bites” to determine how we will vote.

And, like a bunch of fish hitting a dead worm on a hook, we bite.

Most of us say we are tired of the “negative campaigning,” but the politicians keep doing it. Why? Because it works. Because they run their spots and their negative, often untrue television sound bites and we re-elect them.

Solving the Problem

To solve the problem we need (pick one):
a) campaign finance reform
b) a ban on political advertising
c) term limits
d) all of the above
e) none of the above

The answer is e) none of the above. Campaign finance reform is well intentioned but, ultimately, doomed to failure and properly so. It is not the solution.

We don’t need to force the elimination of the television messages, we just need for voters to learn to ignore them. If a politician buys a few million dollars worth of television spots telling us that his opponent is a bad person and we elect that opponent anyway, is the next politician going to copy that routine?

On what should we base our voting decision? There are several ways that are far more informative than the politician’s sound bite.

Somewhere in your daily newspaper, on an inside page and in small print, is a record of the bills passed in Congress (usually listed weekly) and how your representatives voted on those bills. Look for the pattern of voting and you will soon be able to discern whether or not that legislator is representing your best interest.

Also published as a matter of public record (but you may have to work to find it) is a list of all persons and organizations from whom your candidate has accepted campaign contributions and the amounts of those contributions.

A comparison of the list of campaign contributions and voting record is going to tell you a lot about whether or not you want to maintain an incumbent in office. Do I need to tell you that in most cases today that comparison is going to tell you that business interests are buying the votes of your representative?

In addition, for an incumbent or a challenger, research the past actions of the candidate. What clubs and organizations has that person been a member of? In previous offices what has that person accomplished and what causes has that person fought for?

Yes, it requires some work. As Michael Douglas says in his kick-ass speech near the end of the movie The American President, “America isn’t easy. You have to really want it.”

The solution to “politics as usual” is an informed, active electorate. The solution is a set of voters that looks at the incumbent and says, “You voted for a bill that is against my best interest because you were paid to do so” and votes for the challenger.

It’s All About the “Other Guy”

Not too long ago I read that, while a large majority of people feel that Congress is doing a really bad job, an equally large majority feel that the legislators from their state are doing a good job.

That is pure wishful thinking; resistance to change. It represents a “cop out” of letting somebody else take action. Change begins at home. You, as an individual voter, are not responsible for the “other guy.” You are responsible for the person who you send to Washington to govern our country.

This is serious business. Too serious to be decided between segments of “Desperate Housewives” on Sunday night. This is Americans being the government of their own country.

It’s time to step up.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Honoring the fallen

"They go to war, these young men, not to die for their country but to place themselves, their precious lives, between their home and the forces which would destroy it."
Kenneth Roberts, A Rabble in Arms

You won't see pictures like this one from this war, but we should see pictures like this, every day, to remind us of the cost of freedom.

(I took the picture from www.thememoryhole.org without permission, but the context on that site makes it clear they won't mind me using it here. And I may have the quote from A Rabble in Arms a little off, but it's close.)

There is, to my mind, no more noble profession than to wear the uniform of the armed forces of one's country; no more noble endeavor than to go in harms way in defense of that country and its principles. My father served in uniform for 43 years; fought in WW2 and Korea. I served a bit over 4 years until I was mustered out for medical reasons, and forty years later I still to no small degree define myself by that all-too-short tour of service to my country. I have some worthy accomplishments since then, but those were years when what I was doing really mattered.

When those young men and women lose their lives in distant, hostile lands they should be brought home to welcoming crowds, to the sound of a military band playing tunes of glory, and met by the Commander-in-Chief who sent them overseas. We owe them that honor. We owe it to their families as well.

The fallen do not deserve to be brought home in the dark of night so that the government does not look bad and the citizenry does not have to be reminded of the cost of their security. We dishonor our country and we shame ourselves by permitting this outrage.

The executive excuses this practice by claiming that we are "respecting the feelings of the families" of the fallen. That is arrant nonsense. We do not respect their feelings by bringing their loved one home in secret like a thief in the night. We respect their feelings by providing their loved one with a display of honor, by standing beside them and sharing their loss and their grief, by telling them "You are not alone."

My father was buried at Arlington. With the band, the troops and the horse-drawn caisson it was a significant ceremony and quite a lot of people stopped to watch. People removed their hats, and those in uniform saluted the flag that was draped over his coffin. Did I feel they were intruding? I did not. I felt comforted that some small part of a grateful nation was there to honor his service and share my loss with me.

If we must have these losses, then we must do a better job of honoring those who give their lives and a far, far better job of comforting those who they leave behind.

Now it's time to get angry with big oil.

The news has been declaiming the profits of the "big oil companies" in absolute dollars, Exon makes $10B profit in 1st quarter, for instance. That doesn't really tell us whether those oil companies are really bad guys or not, does it? What does that profit represent in terms of percentage of sales, or return on investment?

If they have been limping along in the past selling at a loss and are now selling at a profit of, say 10% on sales, does that makes them the bad guy? I'm not suggesting that is the case, I'm just pointing out that the news reports are not telling us. Investments in the oil business are huge, and continuing investment is big as well. What return on investment does that profit represent?

But then I read that BP is having to shut down the Alaska field and why. Pipelines that have not been maintained for sixteen years and have (big surprise) developed a leak. Okay, now I'm ticked off. They have been making record profits and I no longer care what their percent of sales or return on investment is, they have not even been performing routine maintenance in an environmentally sensitive area.

The chief executive of BP is on television being interviewed and is asked about the record profits and about "stewardship" in the Alaska fields, and he just brags about how quick they were to shut down the field after the leak and environmental damage was discovered. When pressed further he went on and on about how he had apologized to Alaska and to the nation.

Congress is opening more of this area for drilling. We don't want apologies from the oil companies, we want responsible management.