Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Gotcha Question

Many in the left wing media have been in a snit because conservative presidential hopeful Scott Walker refused to answer a British journalist who asked him, “do you believe in evolution?”

    The question obviously had nothing to do with the subjects at hand, with his ability to govern or with foreign or domestic policies. It was in the purest sense a “gotcha” question, a technique liberal journalist are fond of using when interviewing conservatives.

    If Walker had said no, he would have alienated much of his conservative religious base. Had he said yes, the liberals would have ranted for weeks about his ignorant, last century beliefs. Walker simply refused to play the game.

    I have often wondered when politicians would realize they don’t have to answer every question a reporter asks. For me, a highlight of exchanges between a journalist and a politician was when Margret Thatcher, conservative prime minister of England, told a reporter, “Me thinks you waste prime minister’s time.”

    The ultimate gotcha question and answer came when the Pharisees asked Christ if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus said yes, he would make all the Jews mad because they hated paying taxes to the oppressive Romans. If he said no, he would be considered a subversive by Rome.

    Jesus didn’t answer the question. Instead, he took a coin and asked the Pharisees whose image was on the coin. They answered it was Caesar’s. He then told them to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s: end of conversation.

    Politicians need to anticipate the gotcha questions, be ready with answers just as pithy and quit falling for the trap.

    The problem with the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” is that it is too general, and for a thinking person, it cannot be answered with a yes or a no. It is not nuanced enough.

(Liberals seem to love the word “nuanced” when defending some nonsensical statement by one of their own. Their condescending attitude being, it was just too nuanced for you stupid republicans to understand.)

    The politician under fire needs to restate such questions into a more nuanced form and then answer their own question.

     A nuanced form of the reporter’s question to Walker would have been, “do you believe evolution to be the source of creation as we know it or simply a tool used by God.” Now, when Walker says a tool used by God, if journalists want to make fun of him, they risk offending the 95 per cent of their audience who believe in God, and Walker would not have offended his base.





Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My patriotic heresey

One of my Facebook friends today (2/22/15) posted a piece comparing former New York Mayor Rudy Giulian to the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his remarks about President Obama not loving America and apparently questioning Obama’s patriotism.
Not being a patriot, even though I spent 20 years in the U.S. Military, I had a different reaction to the Giulian statement. All the discussion in the media about the incident inspired me to put in writing the thoughts I have had for years about patriotism.
I could start the discussion with what love of country means. But, that would require a lengthy discussion on what exactly we mean by love, followed by a discussion on exactly what we mean by America. Any talk about loving America, must include more than geography.
I don’t think I love what I think Obama has in mind when he says he wants to transform this country. Obama probably doesn’t love what I think about when I imagine what America should be. So, I will focus on patriotism, which is an emotionally charged word that politicians use to make young people willing to put their lives at risk in war and to make old people willing to sacrifice for political ideals.
Patriotic Germans killed millions of Jews. Patriotic Communists of the former Soviet Union sent thousands to the Gulag and killed hundreds of thousands more.  Patriotic soldiers who fought with George Washington killed Red Coats and patriotic British soldiers shot back.
Patriotic emotions induce soldiers to fight for their country “right or wrong,” and keep them from making moral judgments about what they are doing.
People who think about the moral justification of a war sometimes wind up as conscientious objectors. The conscientious objector does not bother me nearly as much as the unconscientious participant. The unconscientious participants sometimes wind up gassing Jews or beheading Christians.
Were I young again and knowing what I know about what is going on in the Middle East, would I volunteer to fight against ISIS? Yes, not because I am a patriot, but because people I care about, Christians, Jews and others are being slaughter by religious patriots.
I don’t love America so much as I love liberty where ever it can be found. When something threatens my liberty and the liberty of my family and friends, I am willing to wage war. Religious patriots have declared their intentions to kill infidels who won’t convert, to conquer Rome and to bring Sharia law to our White House, and they are taking actions to implement these things.

ISIS threatens my liberty which I do love and the liberty of my grandchildren. They are every bit the menace to liberty that the Nazis were in World War II. Read “What ISIS really wants” by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic if you need convincing.
It doesn’t bother me that modern progressives might not love America in the same way Rudy does. They do love what they think it should be.  What bothers me is that they don’t seem to care about liberty. Daily I read about some new limit or restriction they want to place on some aspect of our lives.
As a side note, my 20 years in the military do not make me a patriot. I served, as I am sure many do, for mercenary reasons. I joined the Air Force for four years at age 18 because it looked like adventure and an easy way to escape a controlling mother; purely mercenary reasons. (I know it is ironic to trade a controlling mother for an even more controlling drill sergeant, but young people make mistakes.)
Twenty years later, I began a 16 year stint in Navy and Army reserve components because it looked like adventure on someone else’s dime, and it proved to be so; purely a mercenary reason. I remained a reservist until age forced me out because it was a handy part time pay check with retirement and medical benefits; again purely mercenary reasons.
So, you can thank me for my service, as seems to have become customary, but the truth is, I benefited a great a deal from it and continue to do so.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fanatactics in Control

If the daily headlines have you all shook up and wondering how to make sense of a world controlled by fanatics of various persuasions, read on.

While perusing my book shelves in a moment of boredom, I came across Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which was popular back in my college days. Hoffer’s book is a great resource as you try to make sense of current events.

The late Hoffer never had a day of formal schooling, though he did instruct at college level on occasion. He authored 10 books, most of them having to do with social analysis, many newspaper columns and appeared on Public Television at times. He was born of German immigrant parents, and as a very young boy, for some mysterious reason, he went blind. Since he couldn’t see and didn’t speak English, his parents didn’t bother sending him to school.

As a teenager, his sight returned as mysteriously as it had left, and he learned to read and write. He was self-educated. While working as a migrant farm worker, following harvests in California, he acquired library cards from every town in which he worked and became a voracious reader. In time, he worked and retired as a longshoreman.

 He published his first book, The True Believer, in 1951. In it he examines mass movements and the fanatics that make them happen.

He does not espouse a viewpoint, so you don’t know whether Hoffer is a conservative or liberal, religious or secular, fundamentalist or atheist, communist or capitalist or which of these positions he considers good or bad. He simply explores the dynamics behind the true believers who swear allegiance to the various ideas. It is a good read if you want to understand these movements, if you are a part of one as a true believer, or if you hope to start a mass movement or avoid becoming a part of one.

I first read the book in the mid-60s and just reread it. One of the many ideas he explores has stayed with me since I first read it. He claims the fanatics we often think of as holding opposite positions are not really opposites. As such, it is not unusual to see true believers switch from one extreme position to the other. I could create a rather long list of people I am aware of who have switched from Christian to atheist or vice versa, from liberal to conservative or vice versa, from socialist to capitalist or vice versa. As true believers, they are psychologically and emotionally cut from the same cloth.

Hoffer says the opposite of the fanatic or the extremist is the moderate, the person in the middle. Will someone please tell Rush Limbaugh this as he frequently berates moderates for being people without enough conviction to take a stand.

Hoffer says you don’t convince true believers, you convert them, because true believers are not really thinkers. “The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not with their minds.”

I have come to believe that being a conservative or a liberal is really a right brain, left brain function. I have also come to believe that most of our decisions, especially important ones, are made emotionally. It is only after we have made a decision emotionally that we begin to build a rational for it, in which case it is not surprising that people would switch from one seeming extreme to another.

He talks about mass movements finding their beginnings with men of words whose ideas others then use. “A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action.”

He says that “Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.” I agree, and have said the same thing for years.

Would Jesus be part of a modern church? Catholic Priest Joseph F. Girzone explores this in his novel Joshua: A Parable for Today; another great read. How often do mass movements truly honor the ideas and intents of the people of words they champion or even understand them?

Other interesting Hoffer observations: “Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable in effective leadership. There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of fact. To borrow a riddle heard frequently in my days as a car salesman: how do you tell if a used car salesman (change to politician) is lying? Ans.: If his lips are moving.

After reading an Associated Press report, a generally left leaning news service, on its fact checking of President Barack Obama’s recent state of the union speech, one could conclude he apparently understands the role misrepresentation plays in leadership. The true believers on the right will agree and the true believers on the left will deny the report.

Of course gullible followers then become essential to the equation. “‘Not to question why’ is considered by all mass movements the mark of a strong and generous spirit.”

“The exaltation of the true believer does not flow from reserves of strength and wisdom but from a sense of deliverance: he has been delivered from the meaningless burdens of autonomous existence. … The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”
So, enough quotes to give you a feel for the book. If you want to make sense of our world controlled by true believers or fanatics, get a copy and read it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

College Education for Everyone. Really!

                One advantage to writing a column or blog over a period of years is that the same populist, though foolish, political ideas resurface and can be addressed by simply pulling out a previous column. Receiving the honor this time is Obama’s promise of free community college tuition for everyone. Yes, it was John Edwards who tried to buy popularity with that promise in his try for the presidency before his chances flew south over philandering. This column can be found in my published collection of columns on education, “Education: A Contrarian View,” found in the Kindle Store for 99 cents.

Presidential candidate Jonathan Edwards says if he is elected, he will push for legislation to create a program he calls "College for Everyone."  Government funded education for all of us.  Sounds good!  Who could possibly be against it?  College professors, for one, might consider opposing it.  The unintended consequences might be hazardous to the health of higher education.
(I read in today's paper that some professors fear the ideas will take significant funds away from four year institutions, though that is not my concern.)
       In a previous column, I discussed the sad effect compulsory education has had on our secondary schools.  The intention was good.  Well meaning people wanted to get children out of the work force and they chose compulsory education as a way to achieve it.  However, they did not take into account the corrosive effect of having people in the classroom who have no interest in learning.  Students with no interest in learning dilute education and at times make it nearly impossible for a teacher to teach. 

The same unintended consequences will follow a program of government funded college for everyone.  There are really only two reasons to go to college: because your chosen career path requires it, or because you really enjoy learning.  But there are two other groups of students found on college campuses: those who are there because their families expect them to be there and those who see it as a way of staying off the job market for another four years.  As the affluence of our culture has grown and as government programs for funding higher education have increased, so has the growth on campus of these latter two groups.  Government funded college for everyone will only further bloat colleges with students from these two groups.

While students in these groups are not forced to be there, their interest in learning is minimal.  Professors complain about students showing up on campus in need of remedial instruction, incapable of doing college work, or unwilling to strive for academic excellence.  When given assignments worthy of college level work, these students complain or simply enroll in courses taught by less demanding professors. In times past, a professor could tell those not interested in learning to leave.  However, colleges are in the business of selling credits and administrators need every dollar they can get to pay for their country club campuses, so professors are encourage to accommodate these low performers.  So, the education becomes diluted.  It doesn't really matter whether those not really interested in learning are there by force or by choice; their presence will have the same corrosive effect.

Not only should the government not pay for a college education for everyone, neither should parents automatically shell out the funds for their children to go to college.  Many parents who failed to get a college degree and have had to work hard to move up the ladder of success see college as a way for their children to avoid the same struggles.  One time I got in a squabble with my editor and quit before I had a new job lined up.  Out of necessity, I took a job in the roaster department of a zinc plant.  I was a college graduate among a group of factory workers.  I soon realized the workers were uneasy with my being there.  They had all pinned their hopes for their children not having to work there on their getting that coveted college degree; my presence took away from that hope.  I might add, though, that I got paid more doing that unskilled labor than I did using my college degree.

However, unless a student falls in one of the first two categories mentioned above, a college education might be a setback.  Let's take two kids graduating from high school at the same time.  Tom loves automobiles and gets a job at a big dealership as a parts runner right after graduation.  He's a hard worker, dependable, and because he is curious, he is always learning and takes advantage of all the training classes the company has to offer.

Henry, however, goes to college because his family expects it, but he really doesn't want to be there.  He has no sense of direction so he just barely scrapes by grade wise, taking easy classes and getting a liberal arts degree.  He manages to graduate, but can’t find a good job, so he takes a job as a lot boy at the same agency that hired Tom four years earlier.  Tom has now been through several promotions, has a decent income for a 22 year old and is buying a house of his own.   He has earned a reasonable income over the last four years and his future looks bright.

Henry, on the other hand, has an entry level job, is receiving minimum pay, and is making payments on a $50,000 student loan for a degree he didn't really want and which will do him little good in his aimless pursuit of a career.

The college benefited financially because it got to sell him all his credits and collect all those athletic fees.  Unfortunately, the professors had too many students like Henry.  They were called on the carpet for flunking too many as the college needed to sell all the credits they could, so they begrudgingly modified their syllabi to make it a little easier on students like Henry.

College for everybody and paid for by the government sounds good at first, but my sense is that the unintended consequences will ruin our schools of higher learning.  In fact I would guess it is already happening to some degree just from the government funding now available.  College is not a smart choice for everyone.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Satire and Free Speech

In my previous blog, I mentioned I had no sympathy for Sony in the hacking of its computers and said though they had the freedom to make the movie they made, they didn’t have to do it. The same can be said for the recent terrorist attack of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in France.

Certainly Charlie Hebdo had the free speech right to publish cartoons about Muhammad, but they didn’t have to do so. I am going to be accused of blaming the victim, but the only thing I blame the victim for is stupidity. As any farm boy knows, if you are going to poke sticks in a hornets’ nest, you should have some plan for dealing with mad hornets.

The Charlie Hebdo workers kept poking sticks in the hornets’ nest, but apparently were not prepared to deal with mad hornets. They should have worked in a fortified environment with loaded automatic weapons at each desk and trained employees on how to use them.

An editorial in the Austin American Statesman this morning (1/13/15) raised the issue of having to defend freedom of speech but at the same time not condoning the tasteless speech of so many of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo.

     Many of the pundits seemed to excuse Charlie Hebdo’s tastelessness on the basis that it was satire, as if satire is a holy category that should not be criticized. Hustler magazine once publish a satirical cartoon in which evangelist Jerry Falwell supposedly had his first sexual experience with his mother on an outhouse toilet. It was certainly more tasteless than anything Charlie Hebdo published about Mohammed.

     Falwell filed and lost a defamation suit against the magazine. Hustler argued in wasn’t libelous because it was satire and hence everyone knew it was not published as truth. Truth or satire, it was libelous, but the ruling added to the idea that satire is somehow sacred.

Hustler also knew that poking sticks at butterflies does not carry the same risks as poking sticks at hornets’ nest.

Satirists have the same free speech rights as the rest of us, but I certainly have a right to withhold my sympathies where I well. They are with one protestor at an Austin rally held to express sympathy with Charlie Hebdo. He said he was there in sympathy for the Muslim police officer killed in the line of duty while protecting Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech.

When exercising your right to free speech, if you are going to poke sticks at hornets’ nests, have a plan for dealing with nasty, angry hornets.  

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

books and headlines


    Good teachers teach students that good readers make connections: text to self connections, text to text connections and text to world connections.
    Sometimes a good read is loaded with text to world connections that will help make sense of current headlines. I'll recommend three.
     If you had read the “Cuckoo’s Egg,” by Clifford Stoll and published in 1989, you would not be the least surprised at recent headlines concerning the computer hacking of Sony, nor about future headlines concerning hackings which threaten our national security.

    Since I’m not a techie type, much of the story was outside my realm of understanding, but I was left with one overwhelming impression: the government is not up to dealing with this type of warfare.

    The story is a non-fictional, technological “who done it” which begins with Stoll, an astronomer turned systems manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. He noticed a 75-cent accounting error which led him to believe someone was trying to hack the lab’s system. He began to investigate on his own, and the investigation eventually led to the arrest of a small group of German hackers.

As he got deeper into his investigation, he took his findings to the local police, the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The various agencies did little more than frustrate him. Though it was clear a computer spy was seeking information related to national security, the agencies declined to help during most of the hunt. Instead they used the information Stoll provided to gain an advantage in interagency squabbles.

It is 25 years since Stoll published his book about the problem of international computer hacking, and we apparently are still not up to handling the problem. The FBI quickly determined North Korea was responsible for the Sony incident, though it now appears it was probably a group of disgruntled former Sony employees. Who knows what tomorrow's headlines will produce?

    {I have a couple of other comments about the Sony hacking not related to this subject which I will get back to.)

    An interesting read which also will prepare you for current events is Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” This is considered a classic by libertarians. It has been around a long time, but it is worth the read every few years, though feel free to skip the lengthy speech by John Galt. It will help you understand what is going on with health care. Every time you read about legislative schemes and the political games played relating to railroads and steel, think “Obmacare.”

    A book that helps make sense about headlines relating to the environment, and especially global warming, is Michael Creighton’s “State of Fear.” It is a much more recent book and though the book is fiction, Creighton does his usual extensive research into his subject. He started the research with one perspective in mind and ended it with quite a different perspective. As you follow the story, much of what you see in current headlines will make more sense.

    Back to Sony and its computer hack: I have no sympathy for the people whose snippy little emails got public scrutiny, nor do I have any sympathy for Sony and its loss of money over being intimidated into not showing the film “Interview.” (It eventually did show the film, but not on the scale originally intended.)

    The people behind so much of our creative output have used their freedom of speech to denigrate groups they don’t like, such as Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. They know they can do this with impunity because these groups don’t tend to chop people’s heads off or put large bounties on them, and so, they have gotten use to little or no consequences when dissing their least favorite groups.

    But, there are those out there who are perfectly willing to retaliate when dissed: remember the Salman Rushdie episode. Like the creative community at Sony, Hollywood, and elsewhere, I too cherish freedom of speech. However, just because you can say something doesn’t mean you have to.



Monday, December 22, 2014

Racism, what is it?

    We are being asked by our President to have a national discussion on racism. Good idea. I would suggest the discussion begin with the word itself.

The First Lady said in a recent interview she was shopping incognito at Target when a short lady approached her and asked if she would mind reaching something for her off a top shelf, after all, Michelle Obama is tall. The First Lady used the incident as an example of racism. Really? She’s kidding, right?

    Just last week, I was in Target and a short, elderly lady asked me if I could get something from a top shelf for her. I think it was “tall-ism.”

    Yesterday, a black lady asked me if I could undo the oil cap on her car. She needed to add some oil and someone had put the cap back on too tight, and she couldn’t undo it. I think it was “strength-ism,” though I was dressed in jeans, a sweat shirt and wearing combat boots, so she might have thought I was a yard boy.

    Of course, in both cases, without thinking about it one way or another, I gladly and politely performed the request.

    However, the reporting of the Obama issue brings to mind something that has troubled me in recent weeks: Are the promiscuous accusations of “racism” causing the word to lose its power or significance?

    When black leaders of the 60s and 70s used the word racist, we all knew what they were talking about: Jim Crow laws, lynchings, attack dogs, segregated facilities, gross and blatant job discrimination, “n----r,” and “boy.” Today, it is not so obvious what will cause one to be labeled a racist, and I fear as a result, the word is losing its power to shame those who should be ashamed.

    Words do lose their ability to move people when abused or overly used. People my age can remember when the “F” bomb was shocking. But, along came the free speech movement of the 60s (Yes, I can remember the 60s, also the 40s and 50s.)when students and comedians demanded the right to use the “f” word wherever, whenever.

    I was at an Alaska state wide Toastmasters contest in Anchorage in the 80s when the master of ceremonies used the “f” word in a joke, and it brought stunning silence.

    At least two people rushed to the microphone to profusely apologize to the audience for the MC’s faux pas. But, with the proliferation of the use of the word in nearly every social context, except maybe church and elementary classrooms, it has lost its bombast. In many forums, it would still not be polite, but if dropped, there would be no rush to the mic to apologize. And, if there were an apology, it would go something like this: “If I have offended anybody…,” which is to say, the problem wasn’t with the speaker, but with the listener.

I fear the same is happening with the word racist. Forty years ago, you could have shamed me by calling me a racist. I was more than guilty in my distant past of telling racist jokes and making racist comments. Over the years I have repented of such behavior and avoid it. Having lived 20 years in the South and had positive experiences working with and at times for blacks, both as a teacher and a GI, and having black students made me more aware of the issues. And Journalists like Juan Williams and Leonard Pitts have done a lot to increase my sensitivity to the issues of race. But if you called me a racist today, I wouldn’t be shamed so much as confused.

We do live in a society where racism exists, and not just black on white. Through the eyes of my son who is married to an Asian, I have seen how sensitive to racism people of minorities must be when looking for a new job or a new residence. But, when we label every request for help in the store, every police stop, every firing, or every negative interaction with one of another race as racist, we become numb to the accusation or even confused as to what it really is; we destroy its power to move people. People will cease taking the issue seriously. I fear that promiscuously using the word racist has become akin to the boy who cried wolf too many times.