Making Ourselves Feel Better

Many years ago, when working with suicidal children, I was in a staff meeting in which children who were in our program were referred to as having “failed.” They were said to have “failed” in their placements or in their family. Even though I had been at my position for less than a few weeks, I raised my hand to object to this sort of characterization. The Executive Director argued the legitimacy of his point with an attitude of you’ll feel the same way once you’ve been around the block a bit more. More than fifteen years later (and having been around the block, albeit not in the field of direct care) I still hold that those kids were not failures at all.

We hear some of the same language being applied to members of the underclass. That they have somehow failed to avail themselves of all the great opportunities for success that America holds. Or we are told that poor folks are that way because of pathological behaviors, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, that are somehow innate in just these people.

What this language of failure is really meant to do, though, is not to describe (at least accurately) the plight of either of these groups. Rather, it is a way to make ourselves (adults, non-poor) feel better, to let ourselves off the hook and to collectively demonize others for what are often failures of our society, its structure and its values. It mischaracterizes reality and makes very complex matters into simplistic good/bad narratives.

When we label children who try to take their own lives, or are in danger of harming themselves, as “failures” we shift blame away from adults, our mental health system, and our values as a society. Take a moment to think about what on earth would make a four year old child want to run in front of a car or an eight year old try to cut her wrist. It’s chilling, to say the least. These were children who had been abused, molested and neglected. They sought an escape from the pain they were faced with every day. And yet, we want to say they failed? No, it is we who have failed.

And we fail in myriad ways, as adults, as a society, to nurture and protect our children. But we also fail to truly help the needy. We provide a meager social safety net, because we are too busy blaming poor people for being poor.

We refuse to be introspective and thoughtful, because to do so would lead to the inexorable conclusion that we are a sick society. We turn a blind eye to child molestation when it is carried out by someone who wears a collar or who coaches a football team. We ignore sexual assault when it’s the star quarterback. We drug test public assistance recipients because we would rather believe they are all shiftless junkies than examine the role that class and white privilege play in our society. We dismiss domestic violence when it’s someone whose records are platinum. We sweep vicious bullying under the rug because those gay kids probably just brought it on themselves.

It is far, far easier to either ignore our very real problems than to account for our shortcomings. God forbid, we might actually even try to remedy some of them. Instead we will continue to worship at the shrine of the dollar, label all those who have needs as failures, and entertain ourselves to death. After all, that is the new American way.


Media Musings (archives)

I just love alliteration, don’t you? Anyway. I have been thinking more about the media and why it continues to do such a poor job of covering the news. I’ve also given some thought to the incredibly negative reaction some media-types have towards those who offer criticism from what might be termed the Left. I believe that both have the same root cause.

For the past twenty years or so, conservatives and the GOP have made an all out effort to discredit the media. From charges of liberal bias to the creation of Fox News, there is a pattern of behavior that is not mere chance. It has been their mission to delegitimize the press, thus preventing objective and accurate criticism of conservative/GOP policies and agendas.

At some point these critiques became valid for some members of the media, and certainly for their corporate bosses. Now, there are certain members of the media whose objectivity ought to be questioned merely because of their relationships- Chris Matthews’ brother was a GOP congressional candidate; Howie Kurtz’s wife is a Republican fundraiser; Daryn Kagan dated Rush Limbaugh; Terry Moran’s brother runs one of the most trafficked right wing blogs; etc. But beyond these folks, there has been something more than a reluctance to challenge GOP narratives.

It is, or ought to be, the media’s job to report and analyze the news. And that means to consult experts, talk to politicians and their staffs, etc. and then report their results. Instead what today’s media tend to do is play a game of he said, she said. Left out is any notion of objective analysis or expert opinion.

Indulge me a somewhat strong hypothetical- Republicans say the universe is geocentric, Democrats say it is heliocentric. The story would read in a fashion similar to watching a tennis match. Instead what we ought to expect is a story recounting what each side claims, but with a predominating strand of scientific evidence that the universe is, in fact, heliocentric.

It is the media’s unwillingness to call a spade a spade that has led us to where we are right now. A land where Karl Rove and Tony Snow can construct reality out of whole cloth. And their media lapdogs merely print their latest talking point.

However, that is beginning to change as liberals continue to challenge the media and the quality of its work. Groups like Media Matters for America (see box on right hand side of page) and blogs like Crooks and Liars have shined the light on untrue and unfair reporting. And that is where the backlash against blogs and liberals begins. See, many media elites think of themselves as being enlightened and somewhat liberal. They are accustomed to those silly Right Wingers bashing them, but have never expected substantive criticism from people with whom they agree. (And part of the reaction may also be the result of over-inflated senses of importance.)

But all we are asking the media to do is its job. All we expect from them is fairness and accuracy. Our desire is not for a liberal equivalent of Fox, but solid and serious journalism. We do not expect every journalist to be a policy expert in matters on which they cover. We do, however, expect them to consult with the people who are experts and provide some sort of depth to their coverage. In short, we expect the media to be something more than what they are today. We want them to speak truth to power and to fulfill the role that our Founding Father’s envisioned for a free press.

(originally posted March 2007)

Ken Mehlman Is Not a Real Man

And not because he is a homosexual. Rather, Mehlman is not a real man because he stood by while members of the Party he led not merely bashed homosexuals. No, the Party he led compared homosexuals to alcoholics, pedophiles, bestiality and an array of other very bad things. A real man would have stood up and shouted, “this is not right!”, regardless of the professional consequences. And regardless of his own sexuality.

Ken Mehlman is not a real man, he is just a coward.

Reasonable People May Disagree

And indeed they often do. Examples abound, from the right way to deconstruct and decode the human genome to the proper method of bleeding a brake line, etc. But each of these things are predicated upon a certain amount of knowledge and more than a minimal dose of reason. After all, reasonable does lead the rest of the sentence. And while we might, as I often have, argue about just what reasonable means, we can probably accept that it is at least somewhat context dependent.

For the sake of the argument I am about to make, one about politics and policy, reasonable shall be taken to mean a willingness to expose one’s beliefs to reason. Then by reason I mean rational thought, whereby one’s beliefs, when in conflict with objective reality, fall.

Partisans off all stripes often have a tenuous relationship with rationality. This is not unique to America, nor to democracies. However, a healthy functioning democracy requires reasonable people in a way that an authoritarian regime never will. As much as I personally despise the median voter theorem, it does hold some explanatory power vis-à-vis American politics. It is such that, at least theoretically, politicians will seek some middle ground between the two polar extremes. In short, let us assume that there is a relatively strong centralizing tendency present in  American politics (I think this is generally true, while missing much fine detail, but suffices here).

But what does good (read: rational) policy making require? Well, rational actors, quite obviously. Just who do we mean by actors, though? Will it suffice to have rational, reasonable elected officials and agency heads? Without getting deep in the weeds about degrees of freedom, agency issues, etc. it ought to be clear that policymakers (politicians and agency personnel) are necessary but not sufficient. They are not sufficient due to their source of power (voters and the people elected by voters), which means that our rational policymaking regime requires a reasonable polity.

Again, the emphasis is on reasonable, not unanimity of beliefs/values, etc. What is necessary is a common vocabulary, some core shared knowledge and a willingness to expose one’s beliefs to objective truth, insofar as such a thing exists. This civic dialogue helps to make finding that median a bit more clear. And ensures that such a point still sits within the realm of rational policymaking.

Unfortunately, one of our two major political parties has long ago abandoned rational thought, preferring instead a series of slogans, fearmongering and religious hucksterism. All of these are the sworn enemy to reasonableness. The examples are legion, but let’s think about just a few things one has to believe in order to be a Republican in good standing.

  1. Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim, despite his birth record from the state of Hawai’i and his attendance of a Christian church.
  2. Global warming is a secret plot by scientists who hate capitalism and want the world to return to the Stone Age.
  3. Two people of the same gender who love each other and wish to get married are secretly plotting to undermine the institution of marriage.

Let us just accept that the modern GOP is a party built upon a frighteningly large number of conspiracy theories (Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style on steroids, if you will). Nearly of these “theories” are easily falsifiable. Yet they persist, not merely on the fringe of the Republican Party, but in the very mainstream of it.

This makes rational policymaking nearly impossible. Not only does it prevent the type of civic dialogue necessary for democracy to exist (how does one have a dialogue with someone yelling socialist at you?), but it has the potential to drastically shift the median voter to a point well outside of what would be objectively good policymaking (see, for example, polling data on the lower Manhattan mosque).

All of this does not bode well for the future of our democracy or our country. We have come to a point where knowledge and expertise are cast aside for religion and gut feeling, by at least one-third of our population. Will we look back on this time as an aberration in a great country’s trajectory, or will future historians cite 21st century America as they do Rome- a once great empire that lost its way.

Stupid Religious Tricks

The pro-lifers want to spend $4 million on a Super Bowl ad. What would possess anyone to waste that sort of money on an advertisement that will be tuned out by 99.99% of the viewership? Considering that such ads have not been approved by the networks or the NFL in the past, I sense that much of this story is an attempt to get some free publicity for the forced childbirth lobby.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the ad does air. And let us further assume that the true goal of the pro-lifers is reduction of abortions (this is debatable; and I say that as someone with deep experience in the pro-life community). Is this money well spent? In other words, will anyone considering an abortion not have one due to this ad? I would say that is very unlikely. But imagine if we used that $4 million to promote better access to birth control, or provide comprehensive sex education. In other words, why not spend the money on programs that will actually reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

I will tell you why. Because most of the pro-life community are religious zealots who not only oppose abortion, but also oppose birth control and sex education. And there is more than a little bit of a desire to “punish those dirty little sluts.” To the pro-life community, the fetus is nothing more than a fetish or idol. It’s tempting to say that their concern for life begins at conception and ends when the baby passes through the birth canal, but they do not even care about prenatal care for the fetus or its mother. You won’t see them lobbying for adequate children’s health care or increasing aid to poor families with children, either.

And beyond the lack of efficacy is an even bigger question about priorities. Why spend $4 million to air a 30 second ad about abortion when there are tens of thousands of children going hungry each day? Or when many of those same children do not have a bed to call their own?

It’s because the Religious Right is obsessed with sex. Never mind that the Bible speaks far more often about alleviating poverty and taking care of the needy than it ever does about human sexuality. Why bother helping to feed the hungry when you can rail against some gay people who want to get married? Why try to alleviate homelessness when there are women who want an abortion?

Nothing makes me more angry than these religious assholes. They are exploiting people’s faith for monetary gain. It’s all a fucking scheme. Many, if not most, of the leaders probably care very little about gays or abortion. What they do care about, though, is the amount of money that will come rolling in every time they attack the “sinners.” I hope that there is a special place in hell for these hucksters and their flocks.

Premature Eruption

I am now of the mind that the rage against the health care reform compromise was premature. Not only has it caused unnecessary fracturing of the liberal/progressive/netroots/whatever the hell you want to call it coalition, but it has put those folks in position to receive all the blame if the bill ultimately fails. The reality on the ground, as it were, is that there is no bill. Senator Reid has yet to corral 60 egotistical narcissists Senators to support whatever it is we’re arguing about.

The latest in the line of ridiculous arguments against compromise (version 15) is Ben Nelson’s concern about Medicaid. He insists that it’s an underfunded mandate, despite the fact that the federal government picks up 93% of the cost. This is, of course, on top of his monomaniacal obsession with abortion. Nelson has stated that he’s willing to derail any health care reform bill that does not, by and large, eliminate Roe v. Wade rights for anyone who gets even a penny’s worth of federal dollars (Hyde Amendment on steroids). There are some who think Reid should call Nelson’s bluff, but I’m not convinced Nelson won’t join a GOP filibuster.

Given the trajectory of health care reform, it’s only a matter of time before one of the other creepy “centrists” pipes up with his/her own demands. And, why shouldn’t they? Surely they saw how willing Senator Reid and the White House were to acquiesce to Holy Joe’s demands not merely in the first instance, but at every illogical twist and turn. I fully expect Bayh, Landrieu and/or Lincoln to find something else objectionable.

And that is why the collection of folks who have vociferously opposed the latest compromise should have held their powder. The bill will invariably get worse before it’s voted upon, if it ever even makes it to the floor. And when the near inevitable failure occurs, the opponents could merely sit back and say that they told you so while avoiding recriminations or assigning of blame.

Please, God, Make It Stop

Some days I just want the media to cease to exist. Today is one of those days.  MSNBC has already shown it loves them some disgraced pol’s kids (see, for example Liz Cheney, aka She-Ra the Torturer), but now they have gone so far as to put Luke Russert on, too. I’m not sure just what Luke’s credentials are for pontificating about current events, aside from the fact that he sprang from the loins of Tim Russert. But in the Beltway media that is apparently sufficient.

And don’t even get me started on Andrea Mitchell using Sarah Palin’s Facebook page as a source of climate questions for Al Gore. Or Fred Hiatt putting her fact-free scribbles on the WaPo op-ed page.

And that idiot Stossel debuts his program on Fox Business tonight. Apparently it will be all about how Ayn Rand got it right. Ugh. Why can’t we have a better media?