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.)

We are better than this

dog whistleThose of us who dabble in the occasional do-it-yourself project eventually learn a few ‘rules of the road’, so to speak. We know that you should always “Measure twice, cut once” and “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape”. And then there’s the one about the old man who explained to his grandson why he had so many tools: “If the women don’t find you handsome, they’ll at least find you handy”.

The key to a job well done is having the right tools and knowing how to use them. To build my column, my tools are my words. It makes sense to know which ones are right for the task. For this one, the important words are not pleasant but are certainly getting a lot of work these days.

 

Here’s where things get ugly

First, let’s flip through the pages of our handy dictionary and get a clear sense of the differences of three key terms: bigotry, prejudice, and racism. Now, each of these words can be used to attack based on a person’s words, thoughts, or actions. It isn’t my intention to single out anyone here, but to get a better sense of how we can define and understand the world we live in.

According to Merriam-Webster, bigotry is ‘obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices’. Words like narrow-minded or intolerant come to mind. People with a “my way or the highway” attitude could easily be described as a bigot, but general usage of the term seems to be much more harsh.

Prejudice is ‘preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge’. To me, that sounds like what you get with the previously mentioned bigot who makes up his mind without bothering to check his facts.

And then there’s the big word that is bouncing around in many current events discussions these days: racism. The language experts describe it as ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race’. That’s some serious heavy lifting in a single sentence, so let’s see if we can expand on that a bit.

 

Truth isn’t always comfortable

In his book “Portraits of White Racism”, David Wellman defined racism as a “system of advantage based on race”. He went on to explain, “Race is still a deadly serious category in America; how one is designated racially profoundly affects the experience of being an American.” That is, how society – and especially, how government – defines you is a primary force in determining how much of your inalienable rights are available for you to enjoy.

Paula Rothenberg, in her study “Race, Class, and Gender in the United States”, writes: “Racial prejudice when combined with social power… leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices.” In other words, if you choose leaders who have strong personal opinions about people of different ethnic backgrounds and they use their position of power to negatively affect the lives of others, you are contributing to a society fueled by racism.

In 1970, Patricia Bidol-Padva wrote that racism is “prejudice plus power”. It’s important to understand that power can be as simple as holding enough influence to affect the outcome of someone else’s actions. Examples would include making hiring decisions or approving a home loan. The greater the power, the more opportunity to derail the lives of others.

Our legal system has a mottled history with race; one only has to consider the Jim Crow laws of the not-too-distant past to see how our courts have been unfairly used to disadvantage non-whites. While it’s tempting to say that things are better now, a recent study by the Brennan Center finds that 24 states right now don’t have a single person of color serving as a Supreme Court justice, hardly a true reflection of our nation’s population. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need a mandatory quota system to force diversification. But if our courts are that much out of touch with reality, can we be assured that those justices are as impartial as we expect them to be? 

 

A matter of choice

Each and every one of us can decide: be driven by feelings of superiority over others who look different, or be accepting of all in spite of those differences. No one is born with hatred, but humans are fast learners. I once sat at a baseball stadium and overheard a young – and clearly drunk – white man shouting his disgust over an African-American umpire’s call of a close play. Turning to one of his buddies, the guy proclaimed, “And that’s why I don’t like black people.” While I’m confident that this belligerent fan isn’t currently serving in office, recent elections have taught us that anything is possible. 

Let me be very clear: a racist can be any color, from any ethnic background, and have any religious belief (or none at all). No particular demographic has exclusive rights to racist thoughts or behaviors. So if I’m pointing fingers here, rest assured. I’m not placing all the blame on one group over another. Systematic hatred of others based on their looks is not limited to one race, and one newspaper column isn’t going to give sufficient space to explain all the reasons for that hatred. 

As a Caucasian male of European descent, I only know what it’s like within my own skin. But I also know that I wasn’t raised to think that I was better than those with different skin tones. And I’m not about to stand in silence while the privileged few try to turn this nation back into a land of oppression.

You see, whether it’s our government using authoritarian means to suppress the rights and privileges of large segments of our population… or it’s the ‘dog-whistle’ catchphrases that pepper the public comments by America’s most prominent political voices…we are seeing prejudice plus power in action. And that, my friends, is racism amplified to the highest volume.

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 1, 2019.)

“Those who cannot remember the past…

are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

the time machine

Buckle up, buttercup

Let’s talk about those who hate. Now, you may not be comfortable using that term to describe those around you (or yourself), but you might recognize a few things in the following paragraphs. And what you discover may make you squirm in your seat. That’s okay: self-realization isn’t a bad thing, especially if you work to change.

Now, you’re probably not among the worst and you may not be actively pursuing a life of hate, so there’s hope. But by being willing to accept the words and actions of others, whether by agreeing in full or in part, means that you are enabling the spread of hate.

And you certainly don’t want that on your conscience, right? 

 

Fiction, not fact

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve certainly noticed that people are growing angrier at the world around them. Egged on by talk radio, social media, politicians, and even preachers, it’s safe to say that Americans are generally more upset with each other with each passing day.

Sure, there’s plenty of reasons (or excuses) for this downward slide of personal behavior, and there’s no one cause. But it isn’t hard to find a few instigators, those who are actively spreading the disease. One of the more prominent of these Typhoid Marys of Hate is Alex Jones, the star of the website InfoWars. You may know him as one of the primary corrupters of truth on the internet. Jones eagerly pounces on tragedies like mass shootings, labeling them as “false flags” – a government-run covert operation intended to mislead – and insisting that what we see on the news is not real. Jones has repeatedly insisted that school shootings like those at Sandy Hook Elementary and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were fake and that the children murdered in those events never existed. Taking advantage of the rising tide of anger in this country, Jones has made a career out of fueling that hatred, convincing many of his audience to fully believe every word he says despite the obvious facts available. 

I will note here that Jones has, somewhat reluctantly, admitted that at least some of these mass murders are not staged events and that the victims are real. Of course, he only changed his tune after he was named in a lawsuit by families of the victims, so I would question his sincerity.

 

No easy answers

Part of the public acceptance of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones has to be the willingness of more and more people to take as truth whatever they hear from the people they like, know, or trust. That’s an unfortunate level of indifference that I’ve discussed on these pages many times before. And I’ve also highlighted the growing eagerness of many Americans to shed the shackles of what they call “political correctness”. People are more comfortable being public with their prejudices. I don’t hesitate to say that many are proud to show off their true selves after hiding their feelings for much of their lives. 

Such levels of intolerance are not new, of course, and are not limited to the USA. Although we have a disturbing history of institutional racial and religious bias with the targets being of many different backgrounds – Native Americans, blacks, the Irish, Eastern Europeans, and many others – we eventually find a way to overcome the differences and, at least officially, grow to be more accepting. Smarter, cooler heads will prevail – they always do – and we as a nation will be better as we move forward.

For now, unfortunately, we have become less than we should be and there are indications of a worsening trend. Take, for example, the results of a recent survey that points to an alarming rise of intolerance in which one’s own religious belief is used as a defense. We’re familiar with cases of business owners who have refused service to gay couples. This survey found the percentage of Americans who support that form of discrimination rose from sixteen percent in 2014 to thirty percent this year. While that’s still a minority, it’s also a near-doubling of approval in just five years, a tendency that could easily climb much higher.

That same survey found similar spikes in the number of Americans who are comfortable with these businesses also refusing service to Jews and African-Americans. What’s notable and troubling is that this support is rising along nearly every political and religious demographic. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, sadly, that those who consider themselves Christians – specifically evangelical and mainline Protestants – are leading the way in this wave of intolerance.

The people who declare to be followers of the Prince of Peace, the Bread of Life, and the Light of the World are more and more becoming less of a reflection of the Man they worship.

 

I think you can see what’s next

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, I can’t help but draw comparisons to the Nazis’ policy of Untermensch, a term to describe people whom they deemed as unworthy and inferior. (The word is a direct translation of ‘under man’, a description employed by T. Lothrop Stoddard, an American journalist and author – and Klansman – whose writings on eugenics and race are seen as a major influence in the establishment of the racial purity politics of the Nazi party.) Much as whole races were devalued in the eyes of those in control back in those dark days, we can see parallels today. 

As Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel once said: “…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victims, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten…”

We need to find a way to convince our friends and neighbors to reverse the trend of hatred and intolerance before we repeat the mistakes of the past.

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

No matter what

A road sign with the word Choose and arrows pointing left and right

In America, we like to choose sides. We make a decision and then stick to it. Nothing you can say or do will convince your buddy to change his ways.

Take for example the Cola Wars. There’s been a rivalry between the drinkers of Coke and Pepsi for generations, with both sides insisting that their favored beverage is better. While I’m sure you know somebody who has no preference, most of the people in my circles are dedicated to one brand over the other. One side insists that Coke is the only soda worth drinking, while the other will select water rather than accept a cola other than Pepsi.

It’s the same thing with sports teams. Or Ford vs Chevy. Or those old commercials with a bunch of guys yelling “Tastes great!” and “Less filling!”

In most cases it’s all in good fun. But often we invest so deeply in our devotion toward one side over the other that it’s no longer trivial. Eventually, these disputes become much more heated when the loyalists on the two sides face off on a political issue.

The Truth, the Whole Truth

If you’ve been following this column for any period of time, you know that I have no patience for liars. If your argument is built upon a foundation of falsehoods, I want no part of it. I wouldn’t want to stake my reputation on something I know not to be true, and I can’t conjure up the desire to have a conversation with someone who deals with fantasy rather than facts.

We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. Our computers and smartphones can lead us to the answers to just about any question imaginable. But we have to be willing to use discernment. We have to take precautions, to make sure that what we hear and what we read is honest and trustworthy.

Sometimes the lies are obvious. Others, though, are partially shadowed. Whether these are half-truths or unspoken realities, we can count them as lies because of how they’re presented. We may be told a less than complete story or, quite often, we just don’t listen well enough. We hear the things we want, and ignore the rest.

If you always believe what you’re told without doing a bit of investigating on your own, you’re taking a big risk. You could end up putting your trust in a person or an ideal only to be greatly disappointed in the long run.

Take for example the woman in Indiana who counts herself as a supporter of President Trump. She voted for him because, among various reasons, she liked his tough stance on undocumented immigrants. But she didn’t think that her husband, who came to the States illegally from Mexico nearly twenty years ago, would be deported. She heard Trump talk about kicking out criminals, but never suspected he was talking about people like her husband. And yet, he was detained, then sent to Mexico on a one-way trip.

Or the mother in Tennessee who told the Washington Post that it was tax credits from Trump that made her unemployed son’s health insurance premiums drop by nearly 85 percent. In reality, those savings were the result of subsidies from the Affordable Care Act, which is still the law. Ironically, repeal of the ACA – a key talking point of Trump’s campaign – will cause those subsidies to end, thus causing her son’s insurance premiums to skyrocket.

In both cases, and a multitude of others, overwhelming loyalty prevented these people from seeing and understanding basic truths.

It becomes part of you

Dan Pfeiffer, who served as Senior Advisor to President Obama, recently said, “Being for Trump becomes part of someone’s identity.” While he is clearly partisan, Pfeiffer’s words ring true. Trump himself made the claim that he could shoot someone and not lose support. Based on the enthusiastic attendees at Trump’s rallies, he’s right. There are a lot of people who are willing to accept anything Trump says or does and remain on his side.

It didn’t matter to them when Trump reversed his campaign promise to label China a “currency manipulator”. They seem okay now that Trump has changed positions on NAFTA and NATO, and that he has flip-flopped on several health care issues. They stand by their votes for him, and they eagerly sign up for tickets to his rallies where they laugh at his jokes and feel good about the choice they made.

They refuse to be convinced otherwise, perhaps because they just don’t want to admit that they fell for a con.

I wonder what it will take, what abuse of power or act of greed, before they see clearly.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald May 4, 2017.)

News: Shaping the story

Take a close look at this comparison I stumbled upon while roaming the internet:

Notice the differences? From straightforward reporting of a fact to hyper-partisanship, these six American news sources approached the Hillary Clinton email story with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

One quick note, the one news network that seems to get the most criticism from right wing pundits — and especially in comments on social media — is NBC (along with its sister network MSNBC), yet its coverage of this story seems to trend toward viewing Clinton in a negative light.

Let’s take this globally and look at how a few other news sources presented the story.

Reuters leads with “Embattled”, suggesting that Clinton is in a precarious struggle. Note how the story is paired with a photo showing Clinton with a rather alarmed expression.
BBC News presents Clinton in a more conciliatory manner, as if she is being victimized by the State Department not releasing her emails… though the headline ends with “controversy”, making sure to paint the story negatively and with the promise of future trouble. 

UK’s The Guardian not only flame-throws with “scandal” in the headline, it also provides a short list of questions guaranteed to draw the reader further into the fire. Yet the editors also made sure to include a picture of Clinton with a “What, me worry?” pose.
Finally, Al Jazeera takes a mixed approach, highlighting Clinton as aggressively trying to clear the air but coupling with a much more casual photograph.

What have we learned?

It’s clear that one story can be handled — or, perhaps, manipulated — by major news outlets. They do so to grab an audience and, sometimes (more often than not), to shape the tone of the story to match the news organization’s own agenda.
It makes sense; if Fox News knows that its audience is overwhelmingly anti-Clinton, then to please the audience the network is more inclined to present stories in such a way that is not favorable to Clinton.
This is further evidence that you should never rely on a single news source. Instead, take the time to explore various outlets to be sure that you get balanced, credible information.