It’s all Greek to me

greek alphabet

It is a sickness which somehow comes with every tyranny: to place no trust in friends. Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound

 

Maybe it was a case of too much feasting during the Thanksgiving break. It could have something to do with overdosing on football. And there’s the desire to find somewhere else to be rather than listen to another family argument over whether it’s “stuffing” or “dressing”. Whatever the cause, I found myself searching Google for any little distraction that could help clear my mind of the holiday blahs.

How I ended up skimming through obscure ancient Greek tragedies is anybody’s guess, but that’s where I found the quote that begins this column. Strangely enough, it seems to fit nicely with recent headlines. 

They have eyes, but…

As the impeachment of President Trump heats up, the speculation intensifies. Will Democrats in the House be able to make a convincing argument? Is there a single Republican in Congress who is willing to put Country ahead of Party? Could the entire process work to Trump’s advantage, giving him the inside track toward a successful re-election? It’s impossible to guess, so I encourage you to avoid betting on the outcome. But there are a few things we know for sure.

We know that it was a team of Russians – NOT Ukraine –  that orchestrated a social media campaign designed to interfere in the 2016 election, working to mislead the American public with false propaganda. We know that Russian hackers managed to gain access to voter databases and political playbooks. And we know that all this was done with the approval of and under the watchful eye of long-time KGB agent Vladimir Putin.  We know what happened because our intelligence agencies told us what happened. Their overwhelming conclusion that Russia was responsible cannot be ignored. These are Americans who take their work – and our lives and security – seriously. You might be able to argue a point here, a point there. But when non-partisan, seasoned professionals bring the facts by the truckload, it’s time for you to set aside the Facebook rumors and show them some respect.

But that’s not where we are, America. We no longer can count on the average American putting trust in the facts. Instead, millions of otherwise practical adults are forfeiting their common sense, turning their minds over to whichever loud and flashy internet meme is the latest to capture their attention.

Or, whichever loud politician in an ill-fitted suit is shouting into the nearest microphone.

Have we no shame?

I find it embarrassing that so many people continue to stand behind this president. He may appeal to their deeply-held prejudices and fear, or they just might be so disengaged that they just don’t care if Trump is lying to them on a daily basis. But I just can’t understand how they can allow some of his most egregious actions to go unchallenged.

This president not only refuses to believe evidence of Russia’s malfeasance as provided by seventeen intelligence agencies, he bends over backwards to give Putin special favors. 

Trump works against the advice of military leaders, putting our service members and allies in grave danger and effectively handing control over to tyrants.

He publicly degrades our legal system, granting pardons to some and dangling a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in front of others.

The president can’t deal with the honest testimony of Americans in Congressional hearings, so instead he and his closest supporters falsely attack the integrity and loyalty of those who dare to come forward. I’m guessing that the Ghost of Joe McCarthy is giving Trump a thumbs up.

He has even used the pardon of a convicted Navy SEAL as a means of claiming his support of the armed services, even though that decision throws the entire military justice system under the bus.

And still, his followers think he can do no wrong. 

Once upon a time, the Republican Party claimed to stand for law & order and unending loyalty to our troops. If that were still the case, then our president would consider our intelligence agencies and military to be his bestest friends. But as Trump continues to quack like a tyrannical duck, Aeschylus’ quote seems to be more accurate with each passing day. 

What good will come of this?

It looks now that the House is just days away from voting on assorted articles of impeachment, sending the case to the Senate for a possible trial. As I’ve said many times before, there is no chance that Mitch McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to convict the president, no matter how strong the argument and evidence. But wrapping up the impeachment proceedings quickly actually works to the benefit of Democrats running for congressional seats, if not also those seeking the White House. By forcing Republicans to go on the record and give the president a free pass, voters will be encouraged to take out their frustrations at the ballot box. Democrats will make the argument that Republicans can’t be trusted to stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law. 

It’s a risky strategy that just might work. But I’m not willing to bet the farm on it. Not yet, at least.

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald December 5, 2019.)

All for one?

penny

E pluribus unum. Even if you never studied Latin, that fairly simple phrase is probably very familiar. You may have only a passing interest in American history, but those words surely stand out. As one of the traditional mottos of the United States, it says so much about our nation. Directly translated, it means “Out of many, one.” It represents the union that formed when the original thirteen colonies became a cohesive single nation. 

What e pluribus unum says to me is: we are all Americans. We can have different philosophies and opinions, but at the end of the day we can look around and say that each one of us is a building block that, when brought together, form a unique and successful nation. We are individuals, sure. But we are also the flesh and blood of what we proudly declare to be the greatest country on the planet.

And yet, many among us seem to take great pleasure in pushing us apart.

Opinions are like…well, you know

In most presidential elections, we are handed a mixed bag of candidates. Some stand out as possessing leadership skills while others appear to be in the race just to become famous. With a combination of creative speechmaking, expensive advertising, and the good fortune to make fewer mistakes than the opponents, one candidate eventually outlasts the pack and is nominated by the Party to lead the ticket going into the Big Show. Since the USA’s political structure is not that much different than our love of competitive sports, the choice comes down to a head-to-head matchup of one Democrat and one Republican. And then, the real fight begins. 

But it’s not limited to the two main opponents. The primary system may in theory be a means of separating the best from the rest, but hard feelings can and do get in the way. By pledging support to an individual candidate early on, some voters just can’t bring themselves to maintain that excitement when their choice doesn’t survive the process. And that lack of enthusiasm can create just the opening that gives the troublemakers the opportunity to make a little political mischief.

We saw that in the 2016 campaign, coming at us from across the nation and from nefarious global interests. We can expect much more in the next election. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar or a fool. More likely, both.

 I’m sick and tired of…

The nastiness comes at you from all directions. From the president on down, our elected officials can capture your attention with a personal appearance, a featured interview, or a handful of (often misspelled) words in a tweet. The politicians do a mighty fine job of confusing the masses.

Complicating the mess are the millions of pundits, professional and amateur, who find a way to get their message to you. Nationally-distributed TV and radio shows, websites, social media, newspaper columns… all are fertile territory for political discussions. Full disclosure: yours truly is one of that multitude, with this column (and blog site) mostly devoted to providing my two cents on the subject. 

I like to think that I provide a fact-supported viewpoint, though I’m not so naive to think that everyone will agree. But I would hope that my readers can see that I present an opinion without resorting to the childishness that is so easily found on pages just like this one.

Our current political climate seems to depend heavily on misinformation and name-calling. Distorting (or simply ignoring) the facts is a given, as are verbal attacks of an increasingly dangerous level. For many, it’s not enough to just disagree when faced with a contrasting opinion. The very notion that someone has a totally different way of thinking is all it takes to cause otherwise rational adults to toss aside any sense of civility. 

Our nation’s editorial pages are flooded with letters and opinion pieces that serve no purpose except to question the intelligence and patriotism of others. The writers take great pleasure in finding new ways to say the same hateful things. But what they seem to miss is this obvious fact: When you have nothing to say in defense of your candidate or position except to attack the other side, you really have nothing to say.

…being sick and tired

Is there a solution? Can we mend the wounds that all this divisiveness has inflicted upon our fellow Americans? Sadly, the answer may be “no”. Or, at least, “not yet”. The brokenness that we live in can’t be repaired with one hand. As long as it is more satisfying to draw attention to the things that separate us than to embrace the ideals that bring us together, we cannot expect to heal.

Clearly, some among us have no use for unity. They thrive on bitterness and will do and say whatever is necessary to keep us at each others’ throats. It is up to mature, thinking Americans to reject the bullies and blowhards. Are we up to the challenge?

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald November 7, 2019.)

I hear the train a-comin’

train track

Here we are, in the final stages of the aftermath of the 2016 election. The votes have been tallied, and the electors have made it official. As our nation’s founders wished, our country once again, for the 44th time in its history, finds itself in the midst of a peaceful transition of power from one leader to another. The future of the United States is now in the hands of a brash, boisterous man of huge ego. A man of questionable character and even more questionable ability. A man who puts on airs of being a leader but has a dubious track record when it comes to actually leading. And yet, like it or not, Donald Trump will be President of the United States of America.

You may like it. I do not.

However, there is only one chief executive position established by our Constitution. There can be only one president. And despite our concerns, regardless of our wishes otherwise, Donald Trump is that one president.

I will not be one of those detractors toying with the “He’s not MY president” mantra. Many foolish people have tossed that phrase about since Mr. Trump’s November victory, and each of them is acting just as ignorant of reality as those who have tried to deny President Obama his own rightful place of honor these past eight years. That silliness is disrespectful to the office and the wise individuals who forged this nation more than two centuries ago. So, yes, he will be known and referred to here as President Trump. I respect the office too much to say otherwise.

That is not to say, however, that I hold much respect for the man himself.

I’ve made it very clear in this column that I’m very distrustful of many elected officials. I’ve also made it very clear that I have not patience with dishonesty. But, as I’ve also written, they all lie. It’s up to us, the stakeholders of this nation, to keep them as honest as possible. We must hold them accountable for their actions, and use our powers — free speech, independent press, the ballot box — to either reward or punish them as we see fit.

But for us to do that requires knowledge. And a backbone. And common sense.

We need a good, strong news media to keep us informed of everything our politicians do, from the positive achievements to the clumsy missteps. We need to stand strong in support of those working in radio, television, newspapers, magazines… even those who tweet and those who blog. We may never see another Deep Throat, but if someone like that comes forward, America needs to know that there will be a modern version of Woodward and Bernstein ready to listen, to write, and to break the news to an otherwise unsuspecting public.

We cannot tolerate the bullying of the press we saw from Candidate Trump… a tactic that President-elect Trump has continued to employ. Sure, he may not like what they report, but he must stop attacking the messengers. And he absolutely must no longer encourage others to verbally and, in some cases, physically assault members of the press. A president must want to uphold the First Amendment. A dictator would want to destroy it.

Of course, I have little hope that Donald Trump will change his tone. Why should he? After all, he criticized Secretary Clinton for making speeches to Wall Street tycoons, but then he hired several of them to serve in his administration. He claimed that his opponents were dishonest, but refuses to release financial documents to prove that other nations can’t influence his decisions. He ran an anti-immigration campaign, but he and his family have a long history of hiring non-citizens. And there’s great concern over why Mr. Trump seems to have more faith in the Russian leader than in our own intelligence agencies.

It will take a lot to convince me that Donald Trump will stay true to the Constitution, that he will govern with our country’s best interests in mind, and that he will demonstrate the level of maturity and wisdom that best befits the person who sits in the Oval Office.

Right now, he’s still not much more than a petulant child, the playground bully who steals the ball and runs away. He’s the boy who would be king, but won’t take the time to learn how to do it right. Probably because he’s afraid to admit that he is in over his head.

But we have only one president and, for a while, he will be Donald Trump. And so, I will be watching him. Studying him. Challenging him. And so should you.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald January 5, 2017.)

And the winner loses all

loser

Imagine you’re watching the Super Bowl. It’s the New England Patriots taking on the Dallas Cowboys. Although it’s an exciting game, it’s a bit one-sided. Dallas scores one touchdown in each of the first three quarters while limiting the Patriots to a single field goal in each stanza. At the end of three quarters, the Cowboys hold a 21-9 lead. The fourth quarter, however, is a different story. While the Cowboys’ offense seems to have run out of gas, Tom Brady is suddenly able to pick apart the Cowboys secondary, leading his Patriots down the field again and again. Final score: New England 37, Dallas 21. The Patriots are the champs of the NFL.

Well, not exactly.

You see, the league decided that the actual score isn’t the best way to decide the winner. Instead, the team that outscores the opponent in each quarter is awarded one gold star, and whoever racks up the most stars is declared the winner.  So, since the Cowboys managed to score more points in each of the first three quarters, Dallas has three gold stars and the Patriots, who dominated the fourth quarter, have just one. Despite the final score, under the established rules the Cowboys are declared the winning team.

That, my friends, is how we elect the President of the United States.

As I was preparing to submit this column to the editor, Sec. Clinton’s lead in the popular vote (the actual votes cast) was a bit more than 2.3 million. That’s roughly equivalent to the population – every man, woman, and child – living in the city of Houston, Texas. In other words, if we simply counted how many people voted for which candidate and used that method for selecting our nation’s chief executive, we would not have a President-elect Donald Trump. But Hillary Clinton’s votes were concentrated in a few states, while Trump was able to claim victory in more, though less-populated, states. And, by nature of the point system that is the Electoral College, Trump earned the win even though he was out-scored.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the top vote-getter failed to grab the brass ring. It was just 16 years ago that George W Bush received less votes than Al Gore. Bush’s advantage in the Electoral College, however, was the determining factor of his success. Three other presidential races also ended with the keys to the White House handed to the candidate who fell short in the vote tally: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

And now, barring a monumental recount that would flip the results in a handful of states — not likely — Donald Trump will take the oath of office next month.

As we prepare for our country’s first Reality Television President, we need to take a serious look at what to expect. Or rather, what not to expect.

First, there will be no wall on our southern border. Sure, Trump promised he’d build one. He bragged that it would be very tall and very beautiful… and that Mexico would pay for it. But in the first few days after the election, Trump was already backpedalling. Interviewed on “60 Minutes”, Trump admitted that the ‘wall’ will probably be more of a fence. Not exactly the impenetrable masterpiece his fans expected, is it?

Candidate Trump also pledged to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. President-elect Trump, on the other hand, told the Wall Street Journal that he likes several provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and is interested in leaving large parts of it in place.

When running his campaign, Trump led chants of “Drain the Swamp”, saying that he wanted to get the special interests out of government. But when you look at the people he’s likely to add to his administration, that’s just another broken promise. A Goldman Sachs banker with deep ties to Wall Street as Treasury Secretary? An Education Secretary who not only promotes for-profit corporate schools but also sits on the board of an organization — headed by Jeb Bush — that supports Common Core?

And while we’re on the subject of the Trump Cabinet, let’s not forget that he has considered naming Gen. David Petraeus to head the State Department. This is the guy who, while serving as CIA Director, shared classified information with his mistress.

But considering that Trump has spent more time on Twitter than he has on learning how to be president — avoiding important things like security briefings — it is clear that he lacks the desire to put in the hard work necessary for the job. I think that he also lacks the ability to learn, preferring instead to shove the hard stuff into somebody else’s hands.

Trump the candidate talked big. Trump the president has to live up to that talk. I don’t think he will, because I don’t think he can.

In a few weeks, he’ll have the chance to prove me wrong.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald December 1, 2016.)

Lately it occurs to me…

kaleidoscope

…what a long strange trip it’s been.

One year, eight months, 3 days. That’s how long this presidential campaign has been. From the first candidate to officially announce his run for the office on March 5, 2015 — Republican Mark Everson, for what it’s worth, and you’re forgiven for not knowing his name — until Election Day on November 8, 2016… 614 days of what is undeniably the strangest trip to the White House this nation has ever witnessed.

I’ve written here before about the flaws of the two major party candidates and, I admit, I’ve spent a great deal of that time pointing out the wide range of negatives swirling around the Donald Trump campaign. Let’s be honest, Mr. Trump is deeply flawed on so many levels, most notably on matters tied to his personality. The fact that the media spotlight on Trump’s campaign has focused so much more on his antics — past and present — than on a more serious discussion of policy is a good explanation for the success of his campaign. Trump entered this race as an entertainer and treated every speech and debate as an episode of an unscripted reality TV show. We, the audience, watched and listened with amusement and disgust… and we never truly believed that he would take it this far.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, a statistical genius with a highly successful track record in the realm of political predictions, admits now that he didn’t take Trump seriously from the beginning. Failure to do so caused Silver to ignore the very polls that he otherwise swears by and, as a result, now is hesitant to be as bold a predictor as he was in previous elections. But who can blame him? Never in our lifetimes — perhaps, never in American history? — has a presidential election boiled down to two candidates who are so incredibly disliked by such large shares of the population.

Hillary Clinton has run a much lower profile campaign, a strategy involving fewer public events than her opponent, but that hasn’t made her immune from trouble. In fact, choosing to spend less time in public view may have caused Sec. Clinton more woes, since it meant she gave herself less chances to counter bad publicity. Considering that she has been a non-stop target of an aggressive media since her husband’s first national campaign in 1992, you would think she would have developed a better plan. Time will tell if she has any regrets.

But this much is certain: no matter the results, this year’s Election Day will not signal an end to the hostilities. And I’m not talking about the harsh barbs traded back and forth between candidates.

Two weeks after all votes are cast and counted, Americans will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner tables that could turn into battlefields, with family members at odds over their political preferences. Wouldn’t it be nice if arguments at the holiday feast were limited to who gets to battle over the wishbone… or which giant balloon was the parade favorite? But not so likely this year, thanks to an election so polarizing that relatives have stopped talking to each other… that has turned Facebook into a war zone… that has even caused regular churchgoers to skip services in order to avoid people with opposing views.

I have used this space to bemoan the lack of civility in our society, brought on primarily by our political partialities. It doesn’t have to be like this.

In the Eighties, President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had vastly different views on policy. But both men were smart enough to realize that they needed to find a pathway to agreement on enough issues to make our federal government work for all of its citizens. The two men would have regular, private lunches… and more than a few social drinks… and talk in a manner that was respectful and mature. They didn’t have to end up completely on the same page, but they knew that the country was better off with leaders who could work together.

Some will point to the lack of such private engagements between President Obama and Republicans in Congress. Yes, Obama isn’t prone to the same degree of socialization as Reagan and others who preceded him in office. That could be because, unlike many recent presidents, he had two young children living with him and chose to spend more free time with them. It could also be due to those Republicans not wishing to be on friendly terms as that would be frowned upon by their constituents and donors.     

Once thing I think is certain: this election is destined to result in even more disharmony, unless we the people choose to rise above our differences and act like adults once again.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald November 3, 2016.)

Looking ahead

telescope

I’m sure many of my readers — actually, probably all of them — will wonder why I’m about to peer into the future of Republican presidential politics. I mean, what qualifications do I have? Some have said that I lean farther to one side than the other, although I will gladly argue that I’m much more of a centrist than some give me credit.

I’m not a partisan; I swear no allegiance to any political party or ideology. I have voted for Democrats and Republicans, each time casting my ballot for the person I thought was right for the job. A few times I’ve picked the winner. Others, my vote was in the minority.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me which party a candidate clings to… as long as he or she is a person of strong convictions, has a solid work ethic, and is willing to do what’s right for the sake of the public.

So, yes, I would gladly cast a vote for a Republican for President of the United States. But not this year.

Let’s be clear: there is no way that Donald Trump will enjoy my vote. Despite his successes in the business world — and there’s plenty to argue regarding the level of his success — Mr. Trump has not demonstrated the basics of leadership capabilities. Face it, the man can’t maintain any sense of maturity for as little as 48 hours. He has neither the temperament nor the stability to lead this nation, and I simply cannot bring myself to check the ballot beside his name.

Secretary Clinton, for all of her flaws (and there are too many to list here) at least shows a sense of the importance of the office. She may not be right on certain policy items, but I think the majority of world leaders are going to take her seriously, while Mr. Trump is more likely to be merely tolerated on the world stage.

So, no, I won’t be casting a vote for a Republican for President of the United States this year. And unless nearly every poll is wrong and nearly every campaign expert is wrong and nearly every betting oddsmaker is wrong, most Americans won’t be voting for a Republican either.

But where does that lead us?

Well, if the recent past is any indicator, the world of political chatter will be filled with suggestions that the Republican party lost because it didn’t nominate a real conservative. That was the message after Sen. John McCain lost in 2008. It was repeated after Gov. Mitt Romney lost in 2012. That means we can expect to hear plenty of I-told-you-sos from Fox News and talk radio about how the election could easily have been won if only the party had gotten behind a candidate with a strong conservative background.

In the 2016 race, there was no one who fit that description better than Sen. Ted Cruz and his bid fell far short. Clearly, primary voters weren’t interested in naming a conservative as the nominee this year either. Now, many will argue that the losses in 2008, 2012, and… (dare we speculate?) 2016 may have been offset with a different choice. But I ask you: if a more moderate candidate who attracts at least some support from independents and a few crossover vote and still can’t win, what makes you think that someone with even narrower appeal stands a better chance? That’s like watching a prime thoroughbred lose the Kentucky Derby and then trying to convince me that a three-legged horse would have probably won.

No, the GOP doesn’t need to distance itself further from the middle. It needs to open itself up to a broader audience, to be welcoming of people from different backgrounds, different faiths, different nationalities… in other words, the Republican Party needs to start looking like the rest of America.

Ah, you say, but that would make the GOP look and act like Democrats. No, not exactly. There’s nothing wrong with the Republican ideals of a less complex federal bureaucracy, a strong defense, and boosting free enterprise. But when those issues are overshadowed by things like vote suppression, absolute nationalism, and acceptance of violent behavior — all of which are prominent in the 2016 campaign — the chances of encouraging more people to vote your way shrink considerably.

The Republican Party could be looking at a successful future, if it can rid itself of the more extreme elements within. Stop turning a blind eye to those who seek to control the party with calls for hatred of others.

Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll convince me to vote for your candidate. But not this year.

Of course, all this would be meaningless if Donald Trump somehow gets elected. If that happens, we’ll all have much bigger problems.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald October 6, 2016.)

The end is near

arguing beagles

It just so happens that I like happy endings. I like stories where good triumphs over evil, when the down-on-his-luck guy finally catches a break, and when star-crossed lovers beat the odds and live happily ever after. Okay, maybe that last one is too much of a stretch, ‘cause the one place you won’t find this guy is plopped down on the couch all wrapped up in some romantic comedy. But I do like to see when conflicts can be resolved and everyone is pleased by how everything turned out. In books and movies, that can happen. In the real world, it’s not that easy.

If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s this: I’m not an optimist. That doesn’t mean that I’m always looking for something bad to happen. But after you’ve spent a few years dealing with all the highs and lows that life can send your way, you tend to get a feeling for how the story is going to end. And this year, my friends, we’re caught up in a real page-turner.

This presidential election was destined to be like none before it. There was no doubt who was going to be the main contender among the Democrats. From the moment that Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008, it’s safe to say we all knew she was going to run again. And it was also clear that she would not have to face many competitors. This is due in part to the view from within the party that Clinton’s previous run gave her the advantage of already having built a national campaign, and that experience coupled with a solid network of endorsers and operatives meant that she would hit the ground running while any rivals would be starting from scratch. And so, despite a rather impressive challenge from Bernie Sanders, Sec. Clinton succeeded in becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major US political party.

For the Republicans, their nominee took a much different path. Sure, Donald Trump had plenty of name recognition, but he never bothered to form any real organization. Instead, Trump relied on a loosely concocted strategy of winning a popularity contest rather than gaining votes based on the usual method of establishing a meaningful stance on policy issues. True, Mr. Trump entered the race as one of a large crowd, but it’s not like most of his competition was all that formidable. Some were poorly funded. Others never seemed to be putting in much effort. (I’m looking at you, Jeb.)

And so, here we are. The next president, the person who will hold the most important elected office in the world, will either be a woman with a very large unfavorability ranking… or a man with, coincidentally, a very large unfavorability ranking. No matter who wins, our nation’s next leader will be greatly disliked from day one. That’s unfortunate, but it could also be a great opportunity. Imagine if our next president takes the oath of office and immediately sets out to gain the trust of all Americans, even (and, for that matter, especially) those who voted for the other candidate. We could be in for a new era of healing and cooperation. But I just don’t see that happening, not for a good while. Like I said earlier, I’m not an optimist.

Never before in my lifetime has there been so much bitterness connected to a national election. We’ve allowed anger to overtake common sense. Family members can’t talk to each other without name-calling. Friends are distancing themselves from each other, all because of whose name they plan to select on the ballot.

Is this what we’ve become? A society that’s willing to throw out all the conventions of kindness and civility? And if it’s this bad now, how much worse will it be after the election?

We need to turn off talk radio and cable TV, and learn how to sit down and discuss our differences like reasonable adults. No name calling, no finger pointing, no threats. I’m not going to tell you that we all need to hold hands and say only nice things to each other. That’s not reality. But we need to get out of this rut we’re in.

The great cartoonist Walt Kelly once worked for Disney, helping to create such masterpieces as “Dumbo”, “Pinocchio”, and “Fantasia”… but he’s best known for his comic strip, “Pogo”. Kelly often used his drawings to comment on social issues, particularly politics, and in doing so condemned extremism on both sides. The most famous quote from his strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” can honestly be used to describe our current political climate.

I won’t say we’ve hit rock bottom, because that would suggest that things can’t get worse. Based on what I’ve seen over the past year, it probably will.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 1, 2016.)

An unconventional summer

empty chair

Two weeks. Two conventions. Two political infomercials that had millions of Americans reaching for the remote in hopes of finding an Andy Griffith Show marathon.

Yes, they’re long, they’re boring, they’re filled with people wearing silly hats. But these conventions were for the most part Must See TV, if for no other reason than to get a solid feeling for the drastic contrasts between the two presidential hopefuls.

The Republican convention was notable for one thing: a general lack of good feelings. The message from the gathering in Cleveland was dark and dreary. Everything is bad, very bad. We used to be great, but we’re not anymore. Speaker after speaker drilled that message into our brains — much as the party’s nominee has done since Day One of his campaign — until we felt miserable. Once convinced that America had ceased to be good and powerful, we were told that only one man could fix it. That somehow only he knew all the answers to our woes, and that, through nothing more than his sheer presence, everything would magically be great again.

Side note: can somebody please tell me, when did we stop being great?

On the other hand, the Democratic Party pushed all the right buttons at its convention. The speakers each night stuck to a theme that was saturated with patriotism, pride, and unity. Sure, they may have skipped a few things — it would have been nice, for example, to bring forward a group of heroic police officers and tell their stories of hard work and community service to balance the somewhat controversial appearance by mothers whose children died in violence, some during encounters with police — but these conventions are all about putting a positive spin on the parties’ candidates and ideas.

Naturally, Hollywood made its presence known at both events. The Democrats brought out Meryl Streep. The Republicans offered Scott Baio. Both gave incredibly forgettable speeches, which is a good thing. The Democrats did have the advantage when it came to star power, offering two Obamas, three Clintons, Biden, Bloomberg, and a powerful message from the father of an American Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. The Republicans mostly relied on Mr. Trump, Mrs. Trump, and four Trump offspring. At least this year they didn’t give us a confused-looking old guy scolding an empty chair.

But it’s not just what they had to say, it’s how they said it. Well after the words themselves faded from your memory — and if you’ve got an attention span like mine, that doesn’t take very long — it’s the style and delivery that lingers in your mind. People who study the effectiveness of public speakers know that the audience is more likely to look back favorably at a speech if the person at the podium found a way to appeal to the listeners’ emotions. If what they say makes us laugh or cry, our brains make a connection.

Say you watch a comedian on stage, one who makes you laugh all the way through the show. You may remember one or two jokes, but you won’t be able to repeat most of his routine. But you will look back at that performance months, even years later. You’ll recall where you were, who you were with, maybe even how the guy in the next row snorted when he laughed. Those things stick with you because that guy doing stand-up zeroed in on your emotions, creating a lasting impression, one that made you feel really good. And that’s what political conventions try to do.

Most of them.

Donald Trump has never stopped telling us that there’s nothing worth celebrating in America anymore. He constantly criticizes our police and firemen, our teachers, even our military… calling them “weak” and “failures”. Then, once the crowd starts buying into his words, he tells them that he is their answer, as if he has superpowers and the entire world will bow down to him just because he exists.

It’s laughable to read the occasional pundit try to compare Trump to Ronald Reagan. For the Republicans, this campaign offers no “City on a Hill” and no “Morning in America”. The Trump campaign has made no effort to highlight anything positive about this nation or its future. Everything is gloom and doom… fear and hate.

And I don’t recall Reagan ever kicking a baby out of a rally.

I’m not saying that Hillary Clinton is the best choice, not by a long shot. Her flaws are numerous and her personality is far from warm. But her party for the most part managed to gloss over all that and deliver a more uplifting message.

I’m not convinced that Donald Trump really wants to be the next president. I think he only entered the race to feed his insatiable ego. Now, he has no way out except to lose, something Trump may not be able to handle.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 4, 2016.)

I hate labels

shirt label

Recently I purchased a few tee shirts. Nothing fancy, I just needed some new ones for casual wear this summer. They’re cheap and comfortable… but they’re also irritating. That’s because they all have a large white tag on the inside of the shirt, sewn into the seam that runs down the side. It’s not as soft as the shirt — it almost seems to be made of a blend of plastic and paper — and it’s positioned close to the hem, right near my waist. Because of where it’s located, the tag often causes the hem of the shirt to flip over, as if the whole point of its existence is for everyone to see it. Since the shirts have another tagless label inside the back of the collar with the size and washing instructions, I don’t see the point in having to add this extra annoyance.

I could always cut it off, but I know better. When you remove tags like that, there’s always that one heavy thread left behind, one that looks and feels like fishing line. (I swear, someone in that factory keeps a tackle box next to the sewing machine.) That one thread, while not visible most of the time, will feel like I’ve got a Ginsu steak knife poking me in the side. No thanks, the label stays put.

My guess is the same genius who put that label in my shirt had something to do with the design of my blue jeans. Why? Because there’s a tag in my jeans that is constantly peeking over my waistband. While this tag is soft and doesn’t cause any physical pain, it does lead to some embarrassment. I feel those judgmental glances from other shoppers as I walk down the aisles of the grocery store, so I reach down and try to discreetly tuck the tag back inside my waistband.

I could remove it,  but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s that one razor sharp thread lurking nearby, ready to strike. Besides, this tag is marked with the jeans’ size, an important detail now that I’ve reached a point in my life where I have to have jeans in different sizes depending on whether I had dessert the day before. Nope, that label is going nowhere.

Sometimes they don’t have a purpose. Sometimes they hold vital information. So, like it or not, some labels just have to stick around.

But not all of them. There’s a few labels we could live without.

Take politics, for example. We apply labels to ourselves and each other all the time, and not often for useful, constructive reasons. I mean, what’s the benefit of calling someone a liberal or a conservative, as if that one word completely defines who we are and how we think and what we believe. We’re humans, fully capable of changing our minds, so who’s to say that we can be categorized with a simple one word description? Can we be thought of as a liberal on Monday and, depending on some random experience, suddenly be transformed into a conservative by Wednesday?

But, you say, people DO change their opinions about important topics, so why not give them the label that makes sense at the time? Again I say, because we are complex creatures. No one word can truly and accurately capture every thought, urge, or belief, so why bother?

It’s the same with those among us who call themselves Republicans or Democrats. Really, when it comes to the two major parties, there’s no point in saying that you “are” one or the other. Yes, you can tell people that you are a member of a party, but registering as one or the other should be seen as merely a step you take in order to vote… not as if you’re joining a special fraternity.

Remember, political ideologies change. It wasn’t that long ago that Democrats dominated the Southern states. In the days of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, it was primarily Southern Democrats who were in opposition. Decades earlier, the Ku Klux Klan tended to build its ranks with people who were more aligned with the Democratic party. And, after all, it was a Republican who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, encouraged to do so by liberal Northerners from his own party.

But that was then. Today, the South is overwhelmingly Republican, and not because all the Democrats moved away. Nope, it’s the same people with the same views. They just switched parties after a Democrat in the White House signed some documents and told them they had to start treating everybody as equals.

You know what’s funny? Those Southern Republicans like to say they are from the party of Lincoln, the same guy who freed the slaves. I doubt that Abe would recognize his party today.

I wonder what label Lincoln would give himself.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald July 7, 2016.)

That does not compute

adding machine

Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping computers. They’re all around us… a constant part of our lives… even if we don’t realize it. They are marvelous tools when used correctly. The laptop, desktop, tablet and the smartphone are the most obvious examples of computers we tinker with daily. They may be the only ones you think of when you hear the word “computer”.

The first computer wasn’t electronic, nor was it connected to a power source. Essentially, a computer is, by definition, “a device that computes”. In addition to your Mac or PC, a calculator fits that description. So does an adding machine and an abacus.

Years ago, I had a cool coin bank that had four tubes, one each for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. When I dropped a coin in the slot at the top of the bank, it would roll down a chute until it fell into the proper tube. Markings on the sides of the tubes told me how much money was collected. This was an ingenious and accurate machine that computed the amount of cash I had saved.

But let’s say I purposely dropped a fake coin in the slot, a piece of metal that was the same size and shape of a quarter but not a product of the US Mint. Although it was worthless, it would take the place of a real coin and mislead me into thinking I had saved more than was actually on hand.

In that case, I provided false data to a computer. I lied. I told the device that I was entering a quarter although I knew that was not true. There’s a common phrase to describe that action: “garbage in, garbage out”. In other words, if you, dear human, put in the wrong information… the computer will give you the wrong answer. But then, a computer is nothing more than a tool created by the ultimate device: the human brain. Our brains work on the same concept. Given false information, we are likely to repeat it, often without realizing that the data is incorrect.

Charles Babbage, the 19th century mathematician and inventor who is called the “father of the computer” because of his pioneering work envisioning a programmable computing device once said, “On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”  In other words, if you start with a lie, don’t expect anything else at the end.

Nowhere is that more obvious than the internet, especially on places like Facebook. There, you can tell a lie and your friends will not only “like” it, they’ll repeat it, often with a few embellishments of their own.

Politics and current events seem to be the most common topics of those who spread these wildfire stories. If it weren’t for the world wide web, I doubt any of us would have heard that President Obama was born in Kenya (false), that Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons (not true), or that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Donald Trump for president (not yet… and not likely). But there are plenty of people who hate Obama and the Clintons and, for reasons that defy all known boundaries of common sense, support Trump. For them, these and similar stories reinforce their closely held beliefs. Trying to convince them otherwise is a monumental task. It would probably be easier to convince Niagara Falls to flow uphill.

A recent article in Scientific American magazine explored the difficulties of changing minds. People with long-held beliefs resist information that conflicts with their already established opinions. We tend to settle into a comfortable narrative and refuse, possibly aggressively, to accept anything that doesn’t fit the pattern. So, if you have a history of partisan politics — maybe you’re a lifetime member of a party and usually vote for its candidates — you’ll tend to accept as fact anything that reinforces your stance and looks bad for the other side.

It’s our instinct, our human nature, to strive for success… to win… to be right. When faced with the chance of being proved wrong, we often avoid even the most logical facts and focus instead on a storyline that makes us comfortable. Over time, we feel more at ease accepting as truth anything that conforms to our beliefs, no matter how ludicrous. And if the guy on the radio or the lady on television says out loud what we already believe, even better.

Con men and cult leaders — am I being redundant? — gain the confidence of their victims by telling them what they want to hear. Is it any wonder that many political careers are built on the same foundation?

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald June 2, 2016.)