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.)

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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.)

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.)

Don’t call it political correctness

manners

If you’ve ever watched the Disney classic animated film “Bambi”, you certainly remember the title character’s friend Thumper, the young rabbit who laughed at the newborn deer’s first, unsteady attempts at walking. He was quickly shushed by his mother, who reminded him of his father’s lesson on manners: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”.

Pretty good advice, don’t you think?

As I was growing up, my father taught me a lot about manners. Not so much with the direct instructions that Thumper received from his father, but more from the way he acted toward others. By watching him I learned that you should hold doors to allow others to pass through, to be willing to provide a helping hand if someone is struggling with packages, and to treat others with a level of politeness and respect that you would want in return.

These gentlemanly arts, and many others, shouldn’t be viewed as extraordinary. On the contrary, they should be as commonplace and automatic as saying, “Bless you” when someone sneezes.

My father wasn’t perfect. He had his share of bad days. But he did his best. Same with me, and I can take pride in knowing that it really doesn’t take much effort to be nice. Or does it? Anymore, it seems like such common courtesies are a thing of the past.

Before you think I’m too nostalgic, longing for a simpler time… it’s much more than that. I’m not naive enough to suggest that everything was better in the past. To do so is to ignore both a history filled with disappointments as well as the improvements that have come with the passing of time. The last thing I’d want to do is turn back the clock. But that’s my viewpoint.

In recent years, I’ve been hearing more and more talk about how some people would like to reverse a few of society’s trends. They seem to feel that changes have been imposed on them, changes that somehow subtract from their personal enjoyment. Actually, that kind of floral language is a bit too gentle. What people are really doing is complaining, a lot, that they’re losing their rights. And that, to me, makes no sense. Unless…what they are losing is their “right” to be selfish. That may sound harsh, but let’s take a look at one of the most common complaints expressed by the grumpy crowd: the growing hatred of political correctness.

In my lifetime, government has provided a few mandates that have improved so many lives. There’s the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia ruling, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and many more. Each of these actions were designed to end hardships faced by many Americans, though not without controversy. Each of these advancements continues to be challenged by those who seek to revert back to a time before these fairness laws existed. It’s as if they feel that life was better when people were free to prevent others from enjoying the same rights and privileges, that the only way they could rediscover happiness is to be able to deny the same to someone else.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You think I’m being mean. But hear me out.

We’re experiencing a wave of discontent right now. People are lashing out. Some of them are goaded along by politicians, or newspaper columnists, or like-minded people on radio and television. The common phrase we are hearing now is, “I’m tired of being politically correct.”

They think that government and society have gone too far; that they’ve lost something because others have gained. But look deeper. What they’re really saying is, “I’m tired of being nice. I want to say what I want and do what I want whenever I want and if that hurts someone else… I just don’t care.”

They want to fly their rebel flags, use offensive slang terms to attack someone else’s race or religion, to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness… and they want to do so without being told that they’re wrong.

It used to be that these people were cast off by society as troublemakers. We used to see rejection of such abusiveness. Today however, those thoughts and actions are embraced, even encouraged. We’re seeing politicians for the highest office in the land taking advantage of this growing discontentedness. Even some faith leaders are joining in.

Is this the kind of country we want? Where hatred and discrimination are allowed to take control? Maybe you would say “yes”. Maybe you think that we’ve gone too far to be nice to each other, that we need to reverse the trend.. But I think otherwise. I think we can do even better.

And I think my dad with agree with me.

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

If it quacks like a duck

white-duck

As I wrapped up this column, the early results of the March 1st Super Tuesday primary/caucus states were coming in. While it’s still way too early to say that any one candidate has it in the bag, it’s also very clear that Donald Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in the battle for the Republican nomination. Think about that: a man primarily known for product huckstering and reality television is actually being considered as a contender for the position of Commander in Chief of the most powerful military known to mankind. That right there should be enough to keep you up nights clutching your security blanket.

Over the course — so far, that is — of his run for the presidency, Mr. Trump has relied on little more than his brash persona to rise to the position of frontrunner. He consistently outperforms his rivals in public opinion polls, a fact he gleefully shares with every open microphone. In the debates, he has used a combination of insult, innuendo, and interruption to further dominate the field.

Trump has used his time in the spotlight to attack not just his opponents, but also members of the media, Hispanics, Muslims, the disabled, and puppies. (Okay, he hasn’t attacked puppies yet, but the campaign isn’t over.)

Okay, fine. That’s his style. Trump likes to get in your face, to put you on the defensive from the start. If it takes a personal attack, he’ll go there in order to gain the upper hand. Maybe that works in the most cutthroat aspects of the business world, but is that what we should expect from the leader of the free world?

Sadly, Trump’s style is rubbing off on his opponents. They’re peppering their own speeches with insults and crass one-liners. People who want to be taken seriously in the race for the highest office in the land are reduced to making jokes about the size of their opponent’s… hands. What’s next… “Your mama’s so fat”?

We expect to hear candidates taking the low road when talking about the opposing party. But these frenzied attacks within the Republican party are absolutely juvenile.

I find it hard to believe that clear-thinking members of the Republican party want a man like Trump as their nominee. And yet, many do. Maybe you’re one of them. And that’s your right. You can and should vote for the person you think is right for the job.

But be sure you know what that vote means. You see, when you vote for a candidate, you’re endorsing everything they say. Everything. Oh, sure. You may not agree with every comment, every position, every fiery insult. But when you plant a political sign in your yard or slap a sticker on the back of your car, you are saying that you are 100% behind that candidate… no matter what. Even if that candidate can’t bring himself to immediately and unequivocally reject the Ku Klux Klan. But that’s exactly the type of person who is leading the way for the Republican nomination.

How does the GOP expect to be seen as a party that welcomes people of all races and faiths, yet the head of the pack fumbles something so easy as disavowing the Klan? Maybe Trump’s not a bigot. Maybe he’s just willing to accept support from anyone no matter how despicable.

Republicans like to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan. I never voted for Reagan; I disagreed with many (but not all) of his policy stances. But I thought he was a good man, loyal to his party yet pragmatic enough to know that sometimes you have to give a little to get what you want. Ronald Reagan would never have stood for the shenanigans we’ve seen in this campaign. You never heard Reagan insult and ridicule his opponents on the debate stage. You never saw Reagan mocking others for their disabilities. And you absolutely did not see Ronald Reagan hesitate to condemn those individuals and groups who espouse bigotry and hatred.

In fact, when the KKK publicly endorsed him in 1984, he wasted no time in slapping them aside:

 

”Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse.

”The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.”

 

But that was over three decades in the past. Ronald Reagan probably couldn’t get elected in today’s Republican party.

In this election, support whoever you wish. Just remember that the sign in your yard, the bumper sticker on your truck, the name printed on your ballcap… tells people a lot about you as well. Choose carefully.

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

 

My home sweet home

god-bless-america

I consider myself a lucky man. I was born in what I am convinced is the greatest country on earth… and I’ll bet you feel the same. In fact, no matter what differences we may have, I’m sure that’s one piece of common ground where we will mostly agree. I say mostly because, just like no two snowflakes are alike, no two people have exactly the same opinions on every single topic.

But that should not be surprising. We are humans, not machines, and each one of us is unique. Each of us is shaped by personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We have our own likes and dislikes, our own strengths and weaknesses.

Part of what makes each of us so different… and so special… are the influences of our surroundings. Where we were born, where we were raised, where we have lived, learned, worked… each of these places has given us opportunities to grow, to expand and enhance how we make decisions in life.

Each one of us is different, yet each one of us is uniquely American. So why are so many people trying to drive us apart?

In recent history, we’ve heard many politicians talk about “real Americans”, as if some of us are more worthy than others because of where we live. During the 2008 campaign, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in an appearance in North Carolina, referred to the “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America”. She later apologized for suggesting that certain places were more pro-America than others, but the message was delivered: Palin and others like her were clearly saying that some of us are less patriotic because of where we live.

Typically, it’s the small towns that tend to get the good vibes from such politicians, while our nation’s cities are pointed out as examples of what’s wrong. And that’s not entirely fair.

Sure, it’s easy to look in the urban areas of America and find fault. Every city from coast to coast has its less pleasant neighborhoods: rundown housing, abandoned businesses, areas you would rather avoid. But I challenge you to take a closer look in your own hometown. I’m sure you’ll find the same kind of decrepit homes, empty storefronts, and piles of garbage. It’s just that the cities have more people living closer together… more people per square mile than the rural areas… so we’re more likely to turn a blind eye to the problems close to home. Does the happenstance of such negatives in the cities make the people there less worthy of the label “American”?

Some folks say that the problems are found mostly along our East and West Coasts, and they’re partly correct. But the reason is because those areas are where you find the highest concentration of people. Naturally, you’d expect to have more concerns in areas of larger population. It’s just plain common sense. But is it fair to blame the cities?

Sen. Ted Cruz must think so. Recently, his campaign ran an attack ad against fellow Republican candidate Donald Trump. In it, Cruz points out the differences between himself and his rival by saying that Trump represents “New York values, not ours”. Clearly it had an impact, because Cruz credits that ad for helping him defeat Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

I have to chuckle at the irony: Ted Cruz was once the beneficiary of a Sarah Palin endorsement, but now that she’s a recent addition to Team Trump, she finds herself in public opposition to a man she once strongly supported. Oh, how quickly they turn on each other!

But what’s so bad about “New York values” anyway? Isn’t the Big Apple the same city that we all looked to with admiration through tears on 9/11? Didn’t we all feel the pain with the devastation of the terrorist attack? Didn’t we all feel the sense of pride and determination as the city not only recovered but has flourished in the years since? Don’t we all point to the rebirth of the area that once was the home of the World Trade Center towers and say, “This is what we Americans do: we bounce back, better than ever”?

But demonizing the biggest city in the nation is exactly what Cruz did, and it worked.

Isn’t it time we bring an end to this divisiveness? Shouldn’t we stand up to people like Palin and Cruz and tell them we’re sick and tired of being told that some of us aren’t as good as the rest?
We’re all Americans. We’re all, each and every one of us, part of the greatest country on the planet. We come together when one of us is attacked by a foreign enemy; we likewise should support each other when one of us is condemned by a mere politician.

 

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

Born in the USA?

My great-grandfather was born in Europe. He met and married my great-grandmother there and a few years later moved to the USA. Over time, they raised a family. They were poor by most standards, but they worked hard — my great-grandfather was a cobbler and his bride was a seamstress — and they were good members of their community.Their children were born here… in the United States… and were each given a priceless gift at birth: citizenship. Because she was born within the borders of this nation, my grandmother instantly became a citizen, something that could never be taken away.
Or could it?
There is a growing movement in certain political circles aimed at ending the practice of birthright citizenship. It’s a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, and the opinions on both sides are strong, even if the arguments are a bit weak.
The Fourteenth Amendment officially became part of the Constitution in 1868 and since then its opening sentence became the standard for recognizing who is, actually, an American. The amendment’s Citizenship Clause states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
There it is, plain and simple. If you were born here, you belong here. You’re one of us. (Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as children born to foreign diplomats.) But not everyone is happy about that.
Growing out of the long-running debate over immigration reform, the question of whether to continue the practice of birthright citizenship has taken its place as one of the key discussion topics in the current race for the White House. Candidates, commentators, and coffee klatchers are arguing, sometimes fiercely, about whether a baby should have such a right.
Naturally, those in favor of changing the status quo are quick to point to undocumented immigrants — the so-called “illegal aliens” — and calling for rejection of automatic citizenship for their children. Those who seek to preserve the 14th Amendment as is are just as forceful in arguing that its language was carefully selected to assure that all born here are given equal treatment despite the origins of their parents. After all, some of the first to benefit from the amendment were former slaves who previously had no legal claim to citizenship.
You can be sure that those on the side calling for change would claim that they are only concerned with the undocumented, that they would have no problem with granting citizenship to the children of immigrants who are here with legal documentation. But I have to wonder if it would stop there. Given the power to strip away birthright citizenship from one group, how could we stop the government from ruling that others are also not worthy? Couldn’t such authority lead to refusal of citizenship to people of a certain race or religion?
Couldn’t we see a government that would make such a change retroactive, thus revoking citizenship… and all of its privileges including the ability to vote… from existing citizens? It sure would be an effective means of shutting down your critics, wouldn’t it?
What makes me even more suspicious of the intentions of those pushing this movement is that we aren’t hearing anyone complaining about babies born of parents from places like, say, Norway or Italy or Canada. No, the argument is firmly centered on the children of immigrants who cross our southern border.
What’s further troubling is that the argument is coming from the political right, whose party is sorely lacking in support from the Latino community. Such an unbending stance against citizenship at birth… especially one that is clearly aimed at people who come to the USA from Mexico and other nations to our south… is certainly not helping the Republican Party in its efforts to include people of color under its tent.
That is, if the GOP is still making the effort.
I just read a report projecting the 2016 election turnout broken down by race and its results aren’t enthusiastic for a party that alienates non-white voters. In fact, a party that turns its back on people of color will find that it is virtually impossible to win on the national stage.
I’m not a political consultant, but if someone came to me and asked what I thought would be a good strategy, I’d suggest that being a party of ideas and goals makes more sense than building your platform on exclusion and turning back time.
(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 3, 2015.)