Archive for September, 2010

The Thinker

Embracing the empty nest

The house is now an even quieter place. Since there were only three of us and we are all pretty introverted, we were never a noisy family. If one of us wanted to enjoy multimedia, for example, we would use headphones rather than disturb anyone else. Now, unless there is conversation between my wife and me, the loudest thing that will be heard all day will be plaintive meows from Arthur, the housecat, who doubtless wants a lap or a scritch.

Arthur does not like our daughter’s absence one bit. He mourns his loss in his own peculiar way: by occupying the end of the bed where they spent so much time and gazing incoherently out her window. Our daughter is not wholly gone, of course, just living elsewhere most of the time. She has come home twice since we moved her into a townhouse in Richmond, once for her grandfather’s wedding. We expect her again this weekend and for a couple days it will be like old times again. This means there will be light creeping under our bedroom door all night, and Arthur will knead her pillow with his paws and periodically snuggle up under her chin. But seemingly as soon as she arrives she will be gone again, back to Richmond where, among other things she has befriended an alley cat. She has no memory of life without a cat.

University is turning out to be a bigger and grander adventure than community college. There is something invigorating about any major city, and Richmond qualifies as a major city. She is becoming used to the bums on Broad Street, who for homeless people are generally inoffensive and congenial. She has found a favorite pizza joint that is a good jaunt on the other side of campus. She has found one exasperating course (psychology) and is finding she must do things that her servants (her parents) usually did for her in the past, like her laundry. She must like it down there because we hear little from her. She sends us snippets of email now and then. But when she is home she is expansive with descriptions and feelings of university life. To our relief, this living away from home thing seems to agree with her. And for the most part I don’t worry that something weird and terrible will happen that only I (because of my advanced parenting skills) could solve. I am realizing, hey, I trained her long enough, let her deal with the ambiguity of life for a change!

I am starting to recall, dimly, a married life before there was a child. We only had four years of it, and it seemed packed with events. You cannot quite pick up where you left off twenty years later. Twenty years ago, the only Internet available was on college campuses and only geeks knew how to use it. The closest to an online experience was AOL, Compuserve or dialing up local bulletin boards on your 1200 baud modem. We were also much healthier creatures twenty years ago. Now we are more inclined toward sitting rather than moving. My wife and I trade daily stories and frustrations, but otherwise do not feel the need to be terribly communicative.

Life without our daughter may seem more serene, but in many ways it is even busier. Neither of us likes to sit around and vegetate too long. I have a community college course to teach on Tuesday nights, and that fills up a lot of my free time. And then there are persistent and annoying home maintenance tasks. Three nests of yellowjackets had to be removed. A screen door is in the process of being replaced. New landscaping was recently installed which means the periwinkle and sod have to be regularly watered. There is also the youth group at the church that needs my attention, and the covenant group on the second Monday of the month. And exercise. And periodic tensions at work can take extra effort. And business travel. In fact, as I write this I am wending my way westward toward Rapid City, South Dakota where I will spend the week. In some ways I feel busier than ever, but mostly in a good way, which is generally the way I like it. Since graduate school in the late 1990s, when I got into the habit of working, studying and sleeping and not much else, any other way of life seems a bit weird. Sloth just does not agree with me.

Yet when I am at home and not too engaged in other activities, I hear mostly the largely welcome sounds of silence. Somewhere in the last twenty years my life became too busy to listen to music regularly. I am trying to get back in the habit, starting with a large rack of CDs and vinyl records that once gave a sort of meaning to my life. Lately, I have been listening to music I have not heard in decades, but which remain imprinted in my brain.  It makes the silence go away for a while, and it stimulates creative thought. It also makes chores, like grading papers, more pleasant.

Old habits are partially coming back, such as family dinner. Family now consists of just my wife and I. With the chaos of work and school, family dinners were a weekend thing. Now they are happening during the week as well. My wife usually takes Wednesdays off, which means I often come home to a prepared meal on Wednesdays. It still feels strange, but I am getting used to it. I am discovering I do not have to depend on Lean Cuisine for my dinners during the week.

Perhaps this should be a time for husband and wife to recharge the marriage. So far there are few signs of extra connection going on. Perhaps we were optimally connected before, or perhaps neither of us particularly feels the need to reconnect more than we are used to. There are new options for our unencumbered state. We can see movies during the week if we want, or can disappear to a bed and breakfast for the weekend. So far we are just getting used to the quiet and the privacy.

I vaguely remember days when I would do brazen things like leave the door to the bathroom open while I showered. After all, if it’s just my wife and I inhabiting the house, and often just me, why bother to shut bathroom doors? One reason which I rediscovered is you need to door shut to retain steam and a higher room temperature. Perhaps I should worry about some pervert looking in through the living room window just so and getting a momentary glance at my naked body when I hustle naked down the hall. Such worries really are specious. No one is looking and frankly no one cares to look at ordinary naked middle aged people anyhow. They want to avert their eyes. I would too.

While at this stage of life I have no problem traipsing around the house buck naked when no one else is around, I realize I don’t particularly want to. It’s dawning on me that most people, including me, look much better with clothes on than without them. This is particularly true of us middle aged people. I am sure the thrill of any nudist colony wears off in about 15 minutes. Belly fat, cellulite, scars and droopy skin are features best left hidden anyhow. Better to imagine you and your spouse twenty or thirty years in the past. Better to wear a robe or a nightie to the bedchamber than show up sans clothes so we can at least pretend there is some mystery beneath those garments. Come to bed naked and you may turn off your spouse.

Overall, I am enjoying the empty nest. My suspicion is that when our daughter comes home for extended breaks, we will all be glad when she goes back to university. This new pattern is actually quite welcome. I still love my daughter, but we had her for nearly twenty one years. She needs to begin living independently too. It was time. It was past time to embrace the empty nest, rather than feel sad about it.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

The Thinker

America: grow up

Polls, polls. There are so many of them out there at the moment and most of them trying to figure out how us voters will vote on November 2nd. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from them: voters are frustrated and feel Washington is disconnected from their lives. They are mad as hell and ready to vote their incumbent out of office. They don’t approve of Democrats in Congress, but like Republicans in Congress even less. They are lukewarm at best about President Obama, but as least his approval numbers tend to hover in the forties, which is good for this toxic political environment. If the election were held today, Republicans would retake the House but probably not the Senate, but regardless of who wins, the voters don’t expect a whole lot to change. In addition, a sizeable number of us must have been smoking something because one in five of us actually believe President Obama is a secret Muslim.

Frustration is understandable. Voters voted for change, but they don’t much like the change they got, not that they liked what they had before either. And speaking of change, many of them are living on it, and food stamps, and extended unemployment benefits and maybe living in their parents’ basement. The job market is a depressing mess and those jobs that are available tend to pay a lot less than the ones lost.

Everyone wants relief from their misery, to know that real prosperity is ahead and that we can go back to living comfortable and predictable lives again. If anything in the Republican pitch is resonating, it is the vision of the white clapboard house with the picket fence and a flower garden in the front. Also, it sure would be nice to have our homes worth something close to what we paid for it, and to see our 401-K’s recover.

We can certainly wish for these things, but to expect them to all materialize rapidly is ludicrous. Unemployment is but a symptom of our real problem: a government and society still vastly overleveraged. Republicans can rail against the perceived socialist Democrats. Democrats can hiss back at Republicans for putting us deeply into debt and creating costly and unnecessary wars. All that hatred and vitriol though accomplishes nothing, which is why the anger that will be expressed on November 2nd will not bring relief. We all seem to understand that we can change the cast of players in Congress and the White House, but the relief we crave for is not going to magically appear. We face problems that no ideology can fix and no quick political voodoo can solve. Collectively, the nation is grieving, wailing for a time that is lost and not likely to come again, at least not anytime very soon.

With rare exceptions, politicians cannot be elected by telling us the truth. They tell us what we want to hear, and wrap their narrative around all sorts of other villains, most of them props. Yet, now of all times we must hear the truth, the truth that we know in are hearts. In case you are not listening to yours in the quiet of the night, here’s what it is saying. I can’t take credit for it. It was articulated by Walt Kelly many decades ago in the comic strip Pogo.

We have met the enemy and he is us

America, it’s time for some very strong coffee and to face some uncomfortable facts. First, we live in a democratic republic. Like it or not, we created this mess not that other guy. We created it by voting in people who told us what we wanted to hear. We also created it by tolerating a government that worked for the special interests, instead of demanding one that worked for us. Most of us selfishly tuned out our civics lessons. Instead, we grew fat, tone deaf and apathetic. Don’t care, can’t make any difference, so why bother? Still, for better or worse, it’s our government. We own it. We are all stockholders and the board of directors is out of control. We can’t all emigrate so we have to sober up and fix it.

It’s not the Democrats that need to fix it, nor the Republicans, nor the Independents, nor the Kiwanis Club of Passaic, New Jersey. We need to fix it. We need to fix it together. To fix things, no one is going to get what they want. We are going to have to reach that hardest of places here in American government: consensus. And it is going to be painful. Yeah, I know it’s already painful and you want the pain to go away, but to get to that promised land is going to require more pain. It will require years of pain at best, decades at worst. We have to undo a whole lot of self-inflicted damage and fundamentally change our orientation. Moreover, the stakes could not be higher. If we do not, we are facing the likely bankruptcy and eventual dissolution of the United States. I may have more on that in a later post.

America, we need to so sober up quickly, stop the incessant finger pointing and get busy. Republicans, to get to consensus, you must accept that America will not be the libertarian, Christian, largely white, God-fearing, ultra low tax utopia that you want it to be. By the way, it never was, and never will be. Democrats, America will never be the liberal, gun-free, vegetarian, eco-friendly, blissfully multicultural Birkenstock wearing utopia you want it to be. Independents: no party has a solution that is going to make you happy. The middle ground may not be ideal but if we want to actually solve some of our problems rather than find ourselves a second-class country, it’s a place we all have to get to again.

You get to the middle through this forgotten process called achieving consensus, or, failing that, compromise. We do it all the time in the business world. Not a week goes by where I work where some dispute does not comes up. My team and I do what we have learned to do: we talk an issue through, realizing that while we don’t always agree with each other, we respect each other enough to come to consensus. It’s sort of like therapy. Why should it be anathema for our political parties to do something as civil as I do at least once a week?

Take a deep breath because here’s a sample of what compromise will mean. For liberals this will mean some constraints on entitlements. It may mean something like Medicare costs cannot grow faster than the cost of living in general or a requirement to not allow Medicare costs to exceed a portion of the budget. It will mean that when we find some new medical problem we will not immediately be able to throw money at it, at least not without taking it from somewhere else out. For conservatives, it means that health care vouchers are out. We will mend the Medicare and Medicaid systems we have and make them the best we can with the money we can afford to invest in them, and they won’t be run by the private sector. Yeah, I know these ideas give both liberals and conservatives hives. Grow up.

We all need to suck it in because we are all in this together. We should not take anything off the table, not set any condition that will make us hide in our corners and pout. I was disappointed in President Obama recently when he suggested that the Bush tax cuts for the middle class should never be rescinded, even while he promoted restoring them for the rich. (It is true that when he set up the deficit commission he said everything was on the table, including potential tax increases should the commission recommend them. But that was then, not now.) While increasing taxes on the middle class may not be a good idea in a recession, any prudent stewards of the country would have to agree that in normal times taxes can at least be where they were when President Clinton was in office. We managed just fine, had terrific prosperity and even had a couple years of surpluses. Congress even had pay go rules which basically said you had to either raise taxes or cut something else if you want to propose a new program. Unfortunately, since Clinton left office the public debt has increased by at least half again (more than five trillion dollars). Our goal is not just a balanced budget, but paying down our debt. It means moving prudently and deliberately toward a balanced budget. That is but the first step. It also means paying back principle on our debt as well as interest on it, so our debt load decreases over time. What this really means in essence (steel yourself) is paying more in taxes and probably getting less.

So no one feels singled out, the pain must be spread evenly, and that’s where it will get even harder because we excel at creating tax policies where someone else gets the short end of the stick. It could be something simple like raising the tax rates five percent for everyone. Yes, this will mean a lower standard of living for us in the short run. However, it will also mean that we will be paying down our debt and our grandchildren will not inherit such an onerous debt.

Maybe there is someone in Congress brave enough to tell us the truth. There is at least one columnist. I know I would vote for such a brave politician. No more crying; no more whining. We made our fiscal mess and we must clean it up. If you ask me, anyone who stakes out an ideological position not to do so is unpatriotic at best, and a traitor at worst. This is our country. We are one United States or divided we will fall. We will not grow our way out of this problem. This problem will not ease until the burden of our national debt starts to lift from our collective shoulders.

The Thinker

Review: The Kite Runner (2007)

Occasionally, such as in the movie W., you get an uncomfortably topical movie. The Kite Runner is such a movie because it feels too close to the present. Just this weekend, for example, Afghanistan attempted to hold parliamentary elections with at best mixed results: violence, low turnout and the usual fraud. The Taliban seem busy reoccupying major portions of the country. Thus is it hard to watch a movie about Afghanistan, particularly one as realistically portrayed as The Kite Runner, and not feel the need to turn away. We know the Taliban are nasty people. Do we really need to see their nastiness depicted in a movie, particularly a sickening scene of stoning a woman to death at a soccer arena?

With a movie with such grim topics, it helps if large parts of the movie take place in the United States, as is the case here. In fact, no part of this movie was filmed in Afghanistan. Rather, Western China (specifically Tashgarkan, China) was used as a Kabul substitute, and Kashgar and the Pamir Mountains in China were used to depict other parts of Afghanistan. You would be forgiven for thinking that the crew had somehow managed to film this movie inside Afghanistan, because it feels quite authentic.

The Kite Runner actually follows a long period of Afghan history, beginning with the period of the Russian invasion in the late 1970s and ending with the occupation by the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As you might expect, it is full of Afghanis, which means that you are almost guaranteed not to recognize anyone in the film. Do not let the lack of a prominent actor deter you from seeing the film, because it is gritty, very well done and perhaps too realistic. Amir, a talented boy, lives with his wealthy secular widower father in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Kabul. His father employs a servant whose son Hassan also lives with the family. Hassan does not look Pashtun, the prominent ethnic group in that part of Afghanistan. Outside the sanctuary of their house, he is fair game for a group of older Pashtun bullies, who also harass Amir for his association with him. Perhaps the boys merely mirror the social, ethnic and religious anxiety around them. Afghanistan has rarely known peace for long, and it’s clear that a Russian invasion of Afghanistan is imminent.

Boys being boys, they tune out much of the adult things happening in Afghanistan. Amir and Hassan are the closest of friends, even to the point of carving their initials into a tree. Amir is an inveterate storyteller and Hassan is his eager listener. Their passion, like most of the boys in Kabul, is kite flying. Amir and Hassan are gifted in the art of kite flying, which in Afghanistan involves contests to see if your kite can intersect other kites and cut their lines, setting them adrift. It’s a neat and harmless hobby that involves a great deal of skill.

Soon enough, Amir and Hassan’s relationship is torn apart, principally by the Soviet invasion. Amir and his father flee to Pakistan and eventually to the United States. The story resumes some twenty years later in the San Francisco Bay area. Amir’s wealthy father is reduced to clerking in the United States. Both are still vested in a small but vibrant Afghan community in the bay area. Without going into details, Amir falls in love with a prominent Afghan woman, his father suffers serious health issues he finds a compelling reason to return to Afghanistan under occupation by the Taliban.

It is the latter third of the movie, when an Americanized Amir returns to Afghanistan, which will both appall you and pull at your sense of pathos. Amir returns to a country he barely recognizes that is under the thumb of the ultra-orthodox and power crazy Taliban, then at the height of their power. His journey into Kabul is incredibly dangerous. It is depressing to see a city so shattered, with women reduced to wearing burkas and requiring male escorts, and with religious law meted out with impunity. It is even more depressing to think that no matter what we do in Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to be in charge again at some point, if they are not already by force of occupation in much of Afghanistan.

While the cast is almost exclusively full of Afghans, the film’s producers and directors are not. The story is based on a novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. It is chalk full of adult themes and the nastiness that was and still is the present Afghanistan. It is also very well acted and directed. Its story is not very complex, but it is a very human story of largely ordinary people trapped by circumstances in a larger and messy conflict. The film won a number of awards. It generated some controversy because of a simulated rape scene involving Hassan, which made it dangerous for the actor to return to Afghanistan.

There is some disturbing violence in this movie, as well as many other sad scenes (such as seeing amputees with war or Taliban-inflicted injuries trying to get around Kabul). However, you also get a sense of Afghanistan and its complex culture. The movie’s only real flaw is it feels too close to the present. Perhaps this movie would have been better if it had been made a couple of decades later.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

The Thinker

Voters get a full plate of fruits and nuts

Republicans may still be insane, but at least some of them have a toehold on reality. I am talking about Republicans like Karl Rove, the boy genius behind Republican domination of Congress between 2000 and 2006. In a recent fit of sanity, Rove acknowledged the obvious: that Tea Party activist and now Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell was nuts and unelectable. By nominating her, Delaware Republicans have flipped a likely Republican senate seat into a Democratic senate seat. If the game is about controlling power, Delaware Republicans shot their party in the foot.

O’Donnell’s personal issues alone should have squashed her. They were well known but Delaware Republicans nominated her anyhow. You could write a book about all of O’Donnell’s missteps and weird life. To give you a taste, her failure to pay her taxes forced the IRS to place a lien of nearly $12,000 on her house. She also stopped making payments on her mortgage in 2007, forcing the bank to move to foreclosure it in 2008. She won’t tell anyone where she lives. She spent decades avoiding paying off her student loans. Right now, she is apparently unemployed and living off campaign contributions, which is okay because her headquarters is in her home, at an apparently undisclosed location. She unsuccessfully sued a right wing think tank for gender discrimination. Moreover, she is dreadfully concerned about things that simply don’t matter, like female masturbation. In short, she is the exact opposite of the self-reliant person Tea Partiers supposedly want, but she was nominated anyhow.

O’Donnell is hardly alone. Tea Partiers have nominated a whole slew of genuinely bizarre nominees for prominent and not so prominent offices. An objective person would have a hard time determine who is the nuttiest. Could it be Republican Nevada senate nominee Sharron Angle, who says if elected she will go to Washington and not help create jobs for Nevadans? Who twice refused to disavow statements that there are domestic enemies in Congress? Who thinks that armed insurrection is perfectly fine if Congress refuses to reduce the size and cost of government?  Oh, and her income comes partially from her husband’s government pension. He is a retired federal employee.

Or could it be Joe Miller, who recently trounced incumbent Lisa Murkowski in Alaska’s Republican senate primary? Miller believes in no-abortion ever, including in cases of rape and incest. Also, although he is all for cutting spending and never raising a tax, of course he doesn’t want to cut defense spending at all. Naturally, he does not believe in climate change. But that goes without saying for Tea Partiers as well as most Republicans.

And so it goes. In Colorado, Tea Partier Ken Buck also agrees with Joe Miller: no abortion ever. If your father rapes you, just deal with it and the child for the next twenty plus years (and of course, don’t charge the government one dime)! Moreover, he believes there is too much separation between church and state. Perhaps if elected he will sponsor a bill for a national church. So what’s wrong with a Church of America if it gets us and our government closer to our Lord Jesus Christ? Creating the Church of England worked fine for Henry VIII.

If you are going to put a group of nuts and crazies into office, the timing is ideal. Given the full plate of fruits and nuts Americans will choose from this November, if you are angry and want to make a statement you will pick one of the nuts. It’s hard not to be angry with near ten percent unemployment, one in seven Americans living in poverty, and with a record 51 million of us now without health insurance. Some states are naturally fertile ground for extremists. In most states, a nut like Rand Paul would be trounced in an election, but not in Kentucky, a deeply red state. You have to wonder though how any sane Kentucky voter could possibly vote for the man. Until he later corrected himself, he argued the government should not prohibit discrimination by private employers. Like Sharron Angle, he wants to make life even more difficult for those in his state, for example by getting rid of all farm subsidies for his agriculturally intensive state. Yet current polling shows him slightly ahead of Democratic senate nominee Jack Conway.

Yes, voters are angry, but voting for Tea Party candidates is just irrational. If, for example, you are angry because you don’t have a job, it doesn’t make much sense to vote for a Tea Party candidate who wants to take away your food stamp benefits and unemployment compensation. Tea Partiers are particularly focused on ending allegedly “socialist” programs like social security. They’ve peddled an entirely false meme that Social Security is in imminent danger of going bankrupt. In fact, with no changes whatsoever it is fully solvent for at least two more decades. At least a third of retired Americans have no income other than social security. Most people living wholly off social security benefits live in poverty. Tea Partiers would have us replace a solvent, defined benefit retirement program with a risky, market driven approach where it is unclear how much money you would receive to live on every month. All this is to solve a problem that doesn’t begin for several decades.

Tea Partiers are also dreadfully concerned about deficits, but it is clear that the only acceptable way to deal with them is to cut spending. Even if we eliminated the Department of Defense and its $700 billion budget, we could still not close the deficit as it is currently sized. Moreover, social security is not contributing to the deficit. Rather, surplus funds from social security withholdings are used to buy Treasury Bills that are used to finance deficits. These subtleties are largely lost on voters. This means if you rule out increasing taxes, then the only way to bring deficits under control is to reduce payouts (not collections) of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, or eliminate these programs altogether. Social security, Medicare and Medicaid money goes disproportionately to the middle and lower classes so those voting for Tea Partiers will in effect be screwing themselves. The effect would be to further impoverish those who need these services.

What is really needed is a national conversation on whether we want the United States to become a second-class country. If we cut programs like Medicare and Medicaid, we reduce our intellectual capital, not to mention our life spans. If we judge that we cannot afford to maintain our infrastructure, then transportation will become more problematical, less safe, and massively more expensive to fix at some nebulous future date. How much money would you really save if you neglected all home repairs for a decade? In a decade, would it cost more or less to fix all these problems compared to fixing problems before they become acute? Of course, the same is true on a national scale. Deferring maintenance is ruinously expensive.

The alternative is some sanity. If deficits are a concern, surely we can raise taxes on those who can afford to pay them, like those making over $250,000 a year. We can invest money where it is most critically needed, like in our infrastructure, which also has the effect of creating jobs. When the economy recovers we are positioned to deliver the goods and services the world needs. Meanwhile, we can keep Americans from starving and dying unnecessarily by fully funding antipoverty programs like food stamps and Medicaid instead of cutting them as Tea Partiers want to do. And we can make strategic choices to bring down long term spiraling costs, like health insurance costs, by changing the incentives for providing care to be outcome based rather than fee based.

Or we can effectively decide that to keep deficits down now and taxes low, in twenty years we want most of our citizens to be living in tarpaper shacks. The choice is yours to make on November 2nd, America. I recommend avoiding the fruits and nuts.

The Thinker

There is love

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.

Lyrics by Joss Stone
Sung by Dionne Warwick

The organist was playing something appropriately holy and Catholic, but as my 83-year-old father appeared from the wings of the chapel in suit and tie and a minute later his 77-year-old bride solemnly processed down the aisle, I was hearing Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man instead of the organ. I heard it all: from the blaring trumpets to the rattling bass drums. It is hard to think of a more common man than my father. Yet, if any occasion in his long life deserved a fanfare, this new wedding, sixty years after his first wedding and nearly five years after my mother died, this one qualified. He stood erect and humble, a man still in remarkable health, and with a natural glint of tears in his eyes waited patiently for his bride. His bride Marie gently ascended onto the altar and, at the invitation of the priest, sat next to my father to begin the rite of marriage. Almost immediately, and seemingly instinctively, they were holding hands.

It’s not that “old people” don’t get remarried, it’s just at my father’s age it happens so rarely that when it occurs it is so remarkable that it is almost bizarre. In my father’s case, it was also newsworthy. Someone from the bride’s family thought their story might intrigue The Washington Post. A Post photographer was present, sporting two enormous cameras that rarely had a moment of rest. A golden late summer sun beamed through the chapel’s windows and backlit an interdenominational stained glass window behind the altar. The room was nearly as radiant as the majestic smile and somewhat stupefied look on my father’s face.

My father and new stepmother

My father and new stepmother

My father and his bride met and fell in love at Riderwood, their retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. Residents of retirement communities know and accept death. Death is a daily fact, soullessly articulated by notices on the walls in the common areas. The residents do not know quite what to make with a wedding. The sedate residents of Riderwood mingling on the edges of the chapel seemed very confused by all the children, flowers and the general giddiness. “Goodness, it’s like someone is getting married,” one of them remarked to my wife. “That’s exactly what’s happening,” she told them. “My father-in-law is getting married here today.” This news caused great excitement in this land of walkers, wheelchairs, shuttle buses and residents with oxygen flowing up their noses. “You mean someone who lives here is getting married? Here?”

Yes, it does happen from time to time. When you read about a man in his eighties getting married, he is typically filthy rich and marrying someone half or more his age. Typically, the man is dead within a few years and his bride is locked in legal disputes with his children trying to claim his fortune. However, when your bride is seventy-seven, she is probably not after your money, and you are probably not after her for her youth, as she comes with just as many age spots as you do. Procreation is also out of the question, even with our modern medical advances. Sex is potentially possible if both bride and groom are in good health but it is likely that elderly couples will do much more hand holding than copulating. Who knows what anyone’s motivations are for marrying so late in life? In my father’s case, he married Marie because he loves her.

They love each other in spite of age spots, sagging skin, yellowing teeth and other maladies that come with age. They love each other because, well, they do. There is no accounting for it, but it helps that they are both institutional Catholics, raised large Catholic families, and yet remarkably still find themselves in good health for their age, with good life still ahead of them. They marry perhaps because they have the audacity and impertinence to enjoy whatever time they have left with someone they love.

It is audacious for people their age to look forward to a new life together. It is audacious to revel in the present and in the joy of life, rather than dwell on its inevitable conclusion, which actuarial statistics suggest cannot be too far in their futures. It speaks to their character, their values and their faith that they will not allow age to be a barrier to life or to love. Only the weak worry about an end of life. The blessed, the strong and the true of heart accept what life gives them and challenge life and themselves to fill their cups to the brim. Sometimes, as in the case of my father and his new bride, nature rewards them with rich years and a well-deserved new love late in life.

My father marries well. I have had four opportunities to meet my stepmother’s extended family. In some ways it feels like I have known them all my life and it is only now that I can associate these familiar voices and faces. When someone you know gets married, you often pick up immediate vibes from their relations on the future state of their marriage. There were no warning flags here, just warm, curious and interesting people with generous hearts and deep humanity. My hope is that long after my father and his bride have met their maker, my stepmother’s family will still be in our lives. For a marriage means new beginnings not just for the bride and groom, but also for all their relations, if they are smart enough to make the most of them.

With our parents off on a honeymoon (final destination: Switzerland) we hosted the remainder of our new extended family for a picnic in a park in suburban Maryland. My stepmother’s grandchildren drew on colored chalk on the concrete floor. Burgers and kielbasa (the latter acknowledging my mother’s unseen presence) grilled over a charcoal flame. Mostly we did not need the nametags we now wore. When our parents called us on the cell phone, we yelled Bon Voyage to them. We laughed. We ate. We enjoyed each other. We connected. We felt their love. We radiated in their spirit, and hopefully they in ours.

It is odd that their late-in-life marriage would bring happiness not just to them, but also upon us happy but often overwhelmed offspring and grandchildren with the joy of new connections. In the process, they bring new growth, vitality, energy to all of us.

Love cannot be defined. You only know it when you feel it. There is love.

The Thinker

A certain buzz about me

If there is still a shortage of honeybees, I think they have all moved into my neighborhood. After a year or two of hardly seeing any of them, they are back, and living life with unusual frenetic intensity. This apparently means they are also being hyper-vigilant. I guess if you are trying to rebuild your colonies then protecting the nest has top priority. What it has meant for me is that I have been stung three times in a couple of weeks.

Yep, something unnatural must be going on. I literally could not recall the last time I had been stung, but it must have been so long ago that I was either a child or a teenager. My memory of being stung must be hazy, because I remembered it as a mild hurt. Actually being stung all these years later turned out to be a very painful experience.

Our neighborhood bees are getting crafty. They took me wholly unaware the first time. Who imagines they could get stung before seven o’clock in the morning? I sure did not, so I mindlessly ambled out my front door to retrieve the newspaper from my driveway. I had just placed one foot on my porch when out of nowhere a honeybee decided to land on my right palm and insert one stinger.

Ouch. I mean ouch! It took me a while to figure out what had happened. I thought maybe a thorn had penetrated my skin somehow, but there was the honeybee on the floor of my porch looking really pissed off and going through its death throes. I do what I usually do when some minor infirmity strikes and tried to ignore it. There was no evidence of the stinger still lodged in my palm. Within half an hour I was not only hurting, I was getting sweaty and short of breath. I Googled what to do about these things and aside from removing the stinger and maybe taking an antihistamine, there was little advice other than to watch for symptoms that might require an antivenin. Shortness of breath was one of them. Fortunately, that passed within an hour or so. Given my acute pain, I expected my palm to balloon up, but instead it was just red. Imagine a sharp needle about half an inch inside your palm and some sadistic person was constantly jostling it around. That’s what it felt like. And so it went for twenty-four hours or so. After that it hurt less, but the whole palm hurt off and on for a week. Meanwhile, I became very careful when retrieving my paper in the morning. I suddenly noted a nest of bees next to the walk by my porch, but felt not inclined to buy something to dislodge them. I didn’t want to get stung again and their season was coming to an end anyhow. I figured, what are my odds of being stung again so soon anyhow?

Apparently, they were greater than being struck by lightning. Last weekend I was out on our deck. I noted a few bees above the deck but paid them little mind. I was on a mission to spray paint a new screen door that I had purchased. I put down a drop cloth, laid the door horizontal on the back deck and started spraying. Whatever the manufacturers put in these cans as aerosols, it is either very attractive or annoying to bees. One of them decided he had enough, and made a “bee”line for my left forearm. I pulled out the stinger, cursed a bit and kept spray-painting. This sting hurt, but not as much as the first one. There must be less tissue on the arm compared to the palm. However, unlike the first one, it itched worse. I tried calamine lotion and then baking soda, but neither did much. My skin did get red, partly from my scratching. I must have scratched off the skin where the bee stung me, because this morning I ended up slathering the area with triple antibiotic ointment.

I figured that stinging was over at least for the season. Exiting and entering the house via the garage kept me far away from the bees. I spent this morning and afternoon doing errands, preparing for my father’s imminent remarriage tomorrow. As best I could tell, I avoided all bees. When I had finally finished the last chore of vacuuming the house and sat down at my trusty computer desk when I felt something irritating my ankle. What the heck? It was yet another bee, this one some assassin bee that had somehow gotten inside. Moreover, he decided to sting my ankle. I could find no stinger my leg is definitely irritated. I am trying a topical analgesic this time for the discomfort. As for the bee, he quickly met his maker.

Now I am getting paranoid. I Googled for recent news of beestings but found no articles indicating more people were being stung than usual. It must be something about me. Maybe it is the feminine deodorant that I have been borrowing from my wife that smells all flowery and makes them think I have some pollen free for the taking. Something about me seems to be attracting their attention, and not in a good way. For anything other than a beekeeper, three stings in less than two weeks seem definitely unnatural.

Maybe it’s a sign of the Apocalypse. Or maybe bees hate progressives like me. Or maybe they wanted to sting Sarah Palin, but I was more convenient. Or something. I think I need a beekeeper suit. The bees are definitely sending me a message.

The Thinker

Greater national dysfunction dead ahead

In about two months, citizens will go to their polling station and choose their elected officials. God help us, because no matter which way we are likely to vote nationally, we’re going to be screwing ourselves and our nation.

If the election were held today, it looks likely that Republicans would retake the House, but the outcome is much less certain in the Senate. There is some possibility that Democrats will retain both houses of Congress, but even in that event Democrats will be trying to govern with much smaller majorities. Regardless of who wins, Barack Obama will still be our president. This means the only possible outcome is more dysfunction between branches of government, exacerbating the sorts of tactics that Americans are already sick of.

Polls show that voters don’t like either Democrats or Republicans and pine for this idealistic notion that both parties will somehow put nation above party. As if. Instead, they have to vote from the slate of candidates they got. The dynamics suggest that in about ten percent of the House races (a remarkably high number) voters will vote their local bum out and vote in the bum from the other party.

Sweeping your current bum or bums out of office may give the illusion of changing the dynamics, but it will not. Partisanship will only increase, if that is possible. So if you think you are already frustrated with government now, just wait until you vote your passions and elect a newer even more highly partisan set of into office. I’m afraid Extra Strength Tylenol won’t cure this headache.

Only one part of the Republican agenda is clear: they will spend most of their time until the 2012 elections investigating the Obama Administration at length for alleged malfeasance. It will definitely take some digging because so far, the Obama Administration has been remarkably scandal free. At least Republicans will know what scandal looks like, because they are experts at it. Whether malfeasance actually exists or not is beside the point. One of the few powers Congress can wield in this environment will be the power of investigation so all that is needed is the possibility of malfeasance. So instead of just bottling up appointees and judicial nominations, Republicans will likely bollix up the rest of government as well, ensuring little actual governing is done. This will, of course, give them something to run on in 2012: can’t you see how little Democrats accomplished?

The other power Congress holds is, of course, the power of the purse. With an expected influx of Tea Party activists, expect that a sizeable minority of Republicans simply won’t vote for anything that resembles spending. If you want a preview, simply look to California where its dysfunctional system requires two thirds of both houses to pass a budget. While that is not true in Congress, in the Senate either party can effectively hold the other party hostage unless one side can cobble together sixty votes. The House though may start to envy the Senate. Pity orange-skinned speaker-in-waiting John Boehner. He will have the impossible task of trying to govern House Republicans, a sizable minority of whom won’t allow themselves to be swayed on any issue. After all, they will have gotten into Congress on a platform of no compromises anytime, anywhere.

Yet spending bills must be passed at some point, right? In California, the answer is “no” as long as Republicans stayed united. The ensuing mess led to massive cuts and layoffs, leaving California a largely dysfunctional state and, not coincidentally, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. I suspect that we will see a repeat of the budget showdown of 1995, which furloughed millions of federal workers and left most agencies, except the few that had an appropriation, mothballed. This time though, emboldened with fresh Tea Party members, it is likely that House Republicans simply won’t give in at all. The Senate is likely to be more reasonable, but it’s unlikely an acceptable spending bill will emerge from conference that either the House or the Senate will endorse.

Even if one emerges, can it sustain a presidential veto since in all likelihood such a budget will extend or expand tax cuts for the rich while decimating social spending? The answer is already clear (no), but if dealing with the budget were not enough, there are other recent laws, such as the health care reform law, that Republicans are chomping at the bit to repeal. They ultimately won’t go anywhere either during this presidency, but it will engender a lot of negative energy and hot air.

I expect that unstoppable force is going to meet immovable object. The result will not be pretty and will sour voters even more on government. Congress may look at its current dismal approval ratings as the good old days.

Is there good news in all this? Yes. The good news is that the issues animating voters to the polls this year, our less than stellar economy, is likely to finally recede in voters mind in 2011 and 2012 as our slow recovery is actually felt by the working class, albeit in fits and starts. The economy won’t be quite what it was, but we are likely to see the unemployment rate recede to more politically acceptable levels. Both sides will of course claim credit for it while castigating the other side that the economy isn’t doing better. Voters will get to sort it all out again in 2012.

The surest path to returning a Republican to the Oval Office in 2012 is of course to bet against our recovery, which is why disingenuous Republicans will be doing just that. They will secretly welcome high unemployment and exploding deficits, because it undermines the Obama Administration. In short, there is little upside for Republicans to improve the economy, deficits and the employment picture, particularly if it vindicates the unpopular but necessary long-term strategies Democrats and the Obama Administration have been fostering to achieve long-term growth.

I wish there was an island I could go somewhere until it all blows over in 2012. Meanwhile, I fear for our republic. Governing requires compromise and there will be none of it until 2013 at the earliest. My only question is who will ultimately be held responsible for the ensuing mess? The Republicans of course hope it will be Democrats and the Obama Administration, but if 1995 is any guide having the ability to govern but refusing to do so sours voters’ opinions of you, particularly when social security checks don’t arrive on time. In short, obstinacy is an effective short-term strategy, but a poor long-term strategy for staying in power. Say what you like about the Democrats, but at least they governed, despite near unanimous Republican opposition.

Consequently, any electoral gains Republicans make in this year’s election are likely to recede in 2012.

The Thinker

So many privatization opportunities abound

Unless you live in the state of Virginia, you may have missed the news that our ubiquitous state owned ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) stores may be going the way of the dinosaur. Governor Bob McDonnell promised in his campaign to turn them over to the private sector. He says that the private sector would run liquor stores much more efficiently than the government. In addition, by selling more liquor these private stores would generate additional revenues to help address Virginia’s chronically under funded transportation system. This sure sounds sweet.

Yet, the governor recently ran the numbers again. Maybe turning over ABC stores to the private sector won’t be the VDOT’s salvation after all. While McDonnell swore he would not raise taxes, he did recently float the trial balloon of adding a “fee” to alcoholic beverages sold in the state. A “fee” apparently is not the same thing as a tax. This tax fee should help make up the $250 million dollars in revenues brought in across the state by these ABC stores. Wow! That’s a lot of fees!

It’s unclear to me what the advantage of turning over these ABC stores to the private sector actually is. Whether it does or does not save money seems to be beside the point. A good Republican, after all, believes that the private sector always operates more efficiently than the government. ABC stores were created after prohibition was repealed to control the hard liquor-drinking problem in the state as well as to assure that the state got its proper share of taxes on alcohol. If ABC stores are decommissioned, presumably, I could pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels at the local Shoppers Food Warehouse and save myself a trip to the state owned package store.

It strikes me that state owned package stores are just the tip of the “socialist” iceberg that enlightened Republicans could rid us of, thus giving us more freedom and keeping taxes low. Republicans in Congress, and particularly the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, have their eyes on Social Security and Medicare. The latest groupthink seems to be that neither of these programs is sacrosanct and they can be “managed” by turning them into voucher programs. Send recipients vouchers and let them buy an annuity or old age health care with their voucher through this magic called shopping around for the best deal. If the voucher doesn’t quite cover living expenses to the same degree as the government has, well, that’s too bad but that’s better than “socialism”. At least costs are contained and thanks to the magic efficiency of the private sector, somehow people will be able to buy much more value with their vouchers than through some sort of “socialist” government-run program.

Republicans for years have been advocating for parents to use vouchers buy their way into private or charter schools instead of their local public school. Why settle for mediocre public schools, goes the thought, when some private charter school around the corner will give better results for less money? Likely, their staff would not belong to any stinking teachers’ union. This would help drive value, although it might also depress teachers’ wages.

Why stop with public schools? Why have public colleges or universities? Surely, the magic of the private sector can work its magic if they too were privatized. To a good Republican, even an institution as renown as Texas A&M should be on the chopping block. If the horror of socialism existing in our public schools can be dealt with through the magic of vouchers, surely “socialist” public colleges and universities can be run more efficiently as well if sold to the private sector. After all, tuition increases far exceed the cost of living. Something must be rotten in our public universities and competition is surely the solution.

Strangely, it doesn’t appear that private universities offer a better deal. The Washington Post, whose holding company also owns Kaplan University, calculated that students pay nearly four times as much from Kaplan for an associate’s degree in business administration as do students attending Northern Virginia Community College ($33,390 vs. $8500). It is also true that the state subsidizes NVCC and other public universities, but clearly not so much as to make up the staggering difference between NVCC and Kaplan. From all the evidence, it appears that public colleges and universities offer a much better value for students than private colleges and universities.

Clearly, NVCC is not in the business of making a profit, unlike Kaplan, whose shareholders want regular stock dividends. Kaplan may be targeting those who need more flexibility in their educational schedules and don’t mind paying extra for the privilege. Most students finance at least a portion of their education. Since our “socialist” governments seem to be in the student loan business, they are essentially funding many students’ private educations. Yet while nationwide only ten percent of college students go to private universities, 44% of student loan defaults happen to students attending private universities. Could it be that private universities care more about profits than whether their students actually graduate?

Nonetheless, public universities should be a choice target for Republicans. Why not just issue tuition vouchers for students to use where they want and privatize our public universities as well? Shouldn’t it just invigorate competition in the educational marketplace and thus drive down costs? Oddly, it just doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Private universities seem to be targeting the high-end market, not the low-end. It looks like outsourcing our public colleges and universities would only make college less affordable to those who need it the most. But when ideology is more important than facts, why be bothered? Think of all the money taxpayers could save by not maintaining those colleges, universities and public schools. Just give them a voucher if they whine and let people shop around!

If they return to power in November, there are all sorts of opportunities for Republicans to deliver on their privatization agenda. I was going to suggest that our public roads could be turned over to the private sector, but that’s already underway here in Northern Virginia, where High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are being added to the Capital Beltway, ensuring that the well moneyed won’t have to deal with the inconvenience of traffic. VDOT can no longer be bothered to run the Dulles Toll Road, and turned it over to the local airport authority. Prisons are also being outsourced in many states; the Corrections Corporation of America apparently provides cells for many if not most Arizona prison inmates. In addition, as the Bush Administration demonstrated, war can largely be outsourced these days too. Ask Blackwater. Their stockholders did quite well in the last decade, although the value of their services looks suspect. Even the Obama Administration is getting into the outsourcing act. It wants the private sector to provide rockets to ferry astronauts into space. Curiously, most Republicans are against the idea. It’s probably because it was proposed by a Democrat.

In any event, we have just scratched the surface at innovative ways to reduce “socialism” here in America. It is true that Thomas Jefferson might roll in his grave at Monticello if his beloved public University of Virginia went private, but when it comes to ideology we must not let two hundred years of tradition and a dead president’s feelings stand in the way of innovating the private sector.

It simply has to be all for the best!

The Thinker

Glenn Beck and the unbearable whiteness of being

Every generation brings us great leaders as well as mediocre ones. Every generation also brings us charlatans: people optimized to reinforce our prejudices and whip us up into a cyclonic frenzy. In this decade, there is quite a queue of people competing for this position, but arguably none are trying harder than Fox News commentator and telegenic crybaby Glenn Beck.

Beck’s rants and chalkboard “lessons” are a confusing muddle of selective history and bad analysis. However, they do serve the purpose of stirring up his base. Political change happens only by action, so in that sense Beck is a genius. Beck’s world is a weird, hyper-paranoid sort of world. As much as Beck rails against Nazis, in fact Beck and Adolph Hitler share much in common. Hitler may have been promoting the Aryans and Beck might be fighting for the poor and oppressed WASPs of America, but both are essentially racists. Beck would doubtless say he is not a racist, but based on his passion and vitriol he sure cares a whole lot more about white conservatives than other ethnicities. Both depend on bogeymen and straw men to peddle the false assertion that whites are being discriminated against and are blessed with some sort of enlightenment absent the rest of us mere mortals.

Jokesters like him would normally be laughed off the stage, except Beck has an exceptionally uncanny ability to connect deeply to the greatest fears of conservative white American then stoke them. He is the Father Coughlin of his generation. Beck and Coughlin are chips off the same block. Coughlin was a radio minister during the Great Depression. Beck has both a radio and television show. Coughlin’s fears were largely focused on Jews. Beck’s bogeymen are Muslims who because they are not Christian or Jews are therefore scaaaaary. In fact, his bogeymen are pretty much anyone who is not white or conservative. He just picks one of the shelf to fit the message of the day.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his abhorrence for all things Barack Obama. As much as he fears Islam, he fears his false projection of Barack Obama much more. Barack Obama is apparently every encapsulation of evil imaginable, a true Antichrist. Among Obama’s many sins is Beck’s conviction that Obama is a black racist with a deep-seated hatred of white people. Granted, there is no evidence to support this ludicrous claim. If it bore any semblance of truth, perhaps Obama would have started with his own white mother who he loved rather than abused or abandoned. His mother stood by him, nurtured him and helped him fit in the largely white world they inhabited. In fact, Obama grew up largely estranged from black culture. It was not until he finished college and moved to Chicago that he really connected to his African American side. Even today, many African Americans view him as not quite one of their own. These little details of course are lost on Beck because it does not fit his projected image of the nefarious and evil Obama that he wants to promote.

More recently, Beck counted as one of Obama’s defects the liberation theology he claims he believes in. Apparently this version of Christianity, in Beck’s (and others) minds, is wrapped around the notion that we are all oppressed and part of being a Christian is to free yourself and others from the yoke of oppression instead of just sin and the devil. At the same time that Beck rails against Obama’s brand of Christianity, he also asserts that Obama is a secret Muslim. Many others on the right (but not Beck) assert that Obama is not a native born citizen of the United States, hence an illegitimate president. At the same time (wait for it), Obama is neither a Christian nor a Muslim, but a secret secular atheist, as attested by the fact that he is not become a settled member of a congregation since he became president. Barack Obama: the amazing polymorphic president! It’s obviously past time to find a stake and a bulb of garlic. One cannot be too careful with these Antichrists.

At most only one of these can be true but of course, facts hardly matter. As Hitler and many before and after him have learned, what is true is irrelevant; what matters is what you can get people to believe. If you repeat a lie often enough and convincingly enough a certain number of us sheep apparently accept it as fact. The dishonest formula never changes: pick selective facts, distort other facts, openly lie about many other things and (most importantly) stoke what makes us anxious.

Plenty of us are anxious these days, just as our parents or grandparents were during the great uncertainty of the Great Depression. When you feel uncertain, you are much more likely to believe the implausible or the downright ludicrous. You need something tangible that you can grasp onto to make sense of the suffering and chaos, rather than the intangible reality where cause and effect are often murky. Beck has proven to be a master of feeding our fears and vanities. In his mind, white America is and has always been gifted, glorious, entrepreneurial, deeply Christian and intimately involved in a sacred quest for righteousness directed by God himself. Our actual history of course is replete with voluminous episodes to the contrary, such as our enslavement of African Americans (and others), subjugation of women, forced extraditions and massacres of Native Americans and, more recently, illegal and immoral wars in the deserts of the Middle East. I am not suggesting that the history of White America is entirely bad, just that we, like every other ethnic and racial group out there, have a checkered past. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise, but truth is apparently irrelevant when it does not suit a particular political end. The masses must be fooled into thinking they are nobler than they are.

What I find personally most grating about Beck (and the same is true with Sarah Palin and the many, many others generally lumped under the “Tea Party” umbrella) is he emulates the whiny, victimized people he is supposed to loath. Goodness, they are so oppressed; it’s amazing they can even get out of bed in the morning given the onerous taxes they are paying, even though federal taxes are the lowest in generations. They are innocent victims of sinister forces flagrantly out to oppress them at the enrichment of everyone else. These are the same sorts of ridiculous persecution arguments that Hitler made. What malarkey! We should naturally recoil against them.

In fact, large numbers of White Americans are suffering, particularly in largely white areas of America like the Appalachians. This is because of many factors, but principally is due to the Great Recession, which itself was primarily caused by the overleveraged society Republicans fostered in the 2000s. Whites have been hard hit in many areas, but in most cases were not as severely hit as other ethnic minorities. Whites as a class will probably never have to deal with the high unemployment rates of blacks, or teenagers in general. For those who fell off the economic cliff, it hurts badly, regardless of your ethnicity. However, despite the paranoid rants of people like Beck, no one is out to get whites in particular, which means Beck and those like him are either charlatans or delusional. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The bad economy falls into the vague category of “shit happens”.  Much of it was probably preventable. We could have lived more prudently over the last few decades. We could have balanced our budgets. We could have not rushed into wars of choice. Nevertheless, even if we had done all those things, there are still larger forces at work, such as the rise of China as an economic power, that would still have impacted our economy, perhaps even triggering our current recession. Suggesting that these problems are because Obama is a secret Muslim, a black racist, or is deliberately targeting whites for economic discrimination shows their incredibly shallow thinking. It also perpetuates a culture of victimhood, which, call me crazy, I thought conservatives were against. I thought conservatives were all about accepting your licks and standing on your own two feet. I thought more so than Democrats, conservatives realized that life was unfair so just get over it.

That’s the image, of course, but the reality is now the opposite. Beck is the poster child for white victimization, a role he is glad to accept as it makes him independently wealthy. So where does one look today for real manhood? Where do you find the attributes of great men: graciousness, civility, and someone who does not thrive on a culture of victimization and whine about the unfairness of life, but pragmatically deals with the mess life has thrown at him? There are millions of us out there, but for Beck, he could look at Barack Obama as he actually is. It is no wonder that Beck, Palin and so many others loathe the man. He is demonstrating the way they should behave if they had real character, if they had not grown up spoiled and whiny. Obama is the grown up. They (and Beck in particular) are playing the role of the whiny brats on the playground. It should be embarrassing to anyone to see this behavior in people who are adults.

Obama understands what Beck fails to grasp: you don’t deal with reality effectively through a policy of extreme adherence to orthodoxy. Heck, we just got over the ultimate test case with George W. Bush’s eight years of national folly. If you find yourself surrounded by shit, which was exactly where Barack Obama was on January 20, 2009, you grab a shovel and start shoveling. That has been what Obama has been doing since his first day in office. He is not naïve enough to think that he will make every decision correctly, but he is smart enough to realize that blind orthodoxy cannot change reality. Instead, you first accept reality in all its messiness and ugliness and find realistic ways to deal with it.

Beck, basically you are a whiny brat. It’s no wonder that you loathe Barack Obama so much, because real manhood scares the shit out of you. Obama demonstrates true manhood every day: you deal pragmatically with what is before you with civility and grace.

Beck, be a real man. I dare you. I double dare you.


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