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.)

Occupation: Foole

jester

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Most of us are familiar with that proverb which assures us that we can blame the trickster who catches us in a con the first time, but the fault belongs to us if we allow ourselves to be misled by the same deception a second time.

But what if we still don’t learn from our experiences? What does it say about us if we fall for the fraud over and over again? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me yet again, shame on… Facebook?

 

The real “fake news”

Perhaps nowhere today is there a more prolific source of foolishness than social media, particularly those websites that encourage users to share pictures and videos but without the benefit (or, some would say, hindrance) of a guide or editor, someone who would guarantee that the information posted for our viewing entertainment is also honest and truthful.

It’s one thing if we start off with the knowledge that the thing we’re about to see is a work of fiction. After all, no one really believes that there really are little orange men who work in a chocolate factory or that an evil clown with a red balloon is hanging out in the storm sewer. That’s just make-believe, and we can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, right?

Or so we think.

And hope.

Sadly, we’ve all heard stories of sweet little old ladies who received a phone call from the “police” with the news that their “grandson” was in trouble and were conned into giving credit card information to the caller to pay a hefty fine. It’s along the same lines as those random email requests from a so-called Nigerian prince who needs your help to pay a routine transaction fee to help release several million dollars from a locked bank account for which you will be handsomely rewarded.

Those and many other stories are nothing new. People have been cheated and swindled since the dawn of time. What’s changed are the methods used and the motivation. What once was an effort to steal money and property from the unsuspecting now is often replaced with seeking to confuse the victim in order to spread rumors. Much of the time, the goal seems to be to provoke fear and anger, often tied to politics. 

Not surprising. These days, everything is tied to politics.  

 

It’s really not that hard, people

What’s truly surprising is how quickly people can be convinced to believe the most outrageous claims. Take for example the multitude of tall tales that flooded the internet before, during, and after the 2016 presidential election. (You KNEW I was going down that path, didn’t you?)

You probably heard the story claiming that there was a certain pizza shop in Washington DC tied to a child abuse ring and that there was a hidden tunnel leading from the restaurant’s basement to various locations around the city. Without reading any further, most people would call such reports utterly ridiculous. Unfortunately, the story was amplified throughout social media, embellished with even more lurid details. Major media outlets joined in — Some, perhaps, treating it as a joke but others? Not so much. — and repeated the story enough that many people started to accept it as truth. It didn’t help that some reporters labelled the story “Pizzagate”, thus giving the public an easy title for the non-existent scandal. Of course, it only takes one lunatic with a gun who believes the lies and decides to play judge and jury, and that’s what happened in this case as an armed man who was motivated by the news reports fired several shots inside the restaurant. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it wasn’t the first time that innocent people were placed in danger over a foolish prank. And it wasn’t the last.

That’s just one example of the misuse of the internet to quickly spread a lie. If you want to see more, just open up your favorite social media site. There’s probably a few in your timeline right now.

(SIDE NOTE: I strongly urge my friends in the news media to stop thinking they have to give every little thing a cutesy name ending in “-gate”. Watergate was a real criminal event that disrupted our nation and led to the embarrassing resignation of an American president. Let’s stop trivializing real news stories by making these phoney tales sound legit.)

A matter of choice

Let me be clear: I’m not calling for the elimination of social media. But I am saying that we need to be more responsible about what we say and what we post online. Look at it this way: we pay entertainers to lie to us. We expect them to tell us a story, to pretend they are someone they’re not. That’s the kind of lie that’s harmless. 

It’s when we allow people with bad intent to flood our brains with lies in order to manipulate our lives and the way we vote, that’s when things go downhill. Unfortunately, it’s up to each one of us to prevent propagandists from controlling our thoughts and actions with false information. As Mark Twain once said, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”

*A special tip of the hat to the late George Carlin whose work provided this month’s title.

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

The truth is…


How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving. Yeah, it’s an old joke… but it’s accurate.


Here we are, seventeen months away from the next presidential election and I’m sick of it all. Maybe disgusted is a better word. Or frustrated.


I’m old enough to remember when these campaigns generally lasted about a year and a half. That was before the internet and 24-hour cable “news” and satellite radio. Now, with all these different sources offering political chatter, the campaigns never really end. You could see it in 2012 when, as soon as the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, the rest of the crowd was jockeying for the best spots on the TV talk shows so they could keep their names circulating for 2016. You could see it in early 2011, when Secretary of State Clinton let it be known that she wasn’t interested in continuing in that post during a second Obama term, with the unspoken but very clear message that she would be making another run for the White House.


So, yes, I get weary sometimes with politics. And yet, here I am writing on that subject. One of these days, I’ll submit a column on a completely different topic… just to see if you’re paying attention.


But back to the campaign trail.


Since we’ve got no choice but to be flooded with political blather on a daily basis — except for the occasional breaking news from the Kardashians — I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on some of the most common themes and buzzwords we should expect to hear from the candidates and the commentators.


Let’s start with “small government”. Dedicated readers will recall that I touched on this phrase in a column last July. (You can find it and a host of others archived on my blog; follow this link to read it.) Feel free to ho-hum any candidate who trumpets that he wants to make the federal government smaller or slash regulatory agencies. They only say that until they get elected, then turn around and realize that they kinda like all the power.


How about “tax and spend”? That line is nearly always used to attack Democrats, but there hasn’t been a politician invented yet who didn’t enjoy taking some of the revenue stream from Americans’ pockets and throwing it at his own pet project. Of course, they try not to make it too obvious lest they be accused of being too much in love with pork… so they’ll call for massive increases in things like defense spending.  


There’s “government overreach”. That’s one from the “small government” category, where the politicians decry some particular regulation or agency and how it needs to be eliminated. Those same officials waste little time inventing other ways the government can be a thorn in your side, like making it harder to vote. Believe me, once a politician is sworn in, the last thing he wants is to make it easier for the public to vote him out.


A similar line is “legislating from the bench,” referring to court rulings in high profile cases. We’re hearing that a lot now, especially with the Supreme Court’s highly anticipated ruling on same-sex marriage. Of course, it depends on the subject. Those who attack a court decision on one matter will expend the same amount of energy applauding another. If you like the ruling, the judges are heroes. If you don’t, you want them impeached.


Here’s one I’d love not to hear: “So-and-so is coming to take your guns!” Let’s be honest: more Americans own more guns now than ever before. If any politician was really trying to disarm you, clearly they’ve been going about it all wrong.


That one dovetails nicely with the one you hear about how someone has a “secret plan”. While that one is often used by Second Amendment profiteers, we also hear about hidden schemes to build internment camps, force us to switch religions, and take away our retirement. One thing that bugs me: if the people spreading these claims know all about these “secret plans”, they’re not all that secret, are they?


(By the way… that one about the plan to take our retirement? That one is real… at least, for anyone who is counting on a pension for their golden years. But that’s a topic for a later column.)


I could go on… but you get the point. Honesty takes a back seat when it’s time to run for office.  

There I go again… acting all cynical. That’s a common theme in my writings on these pages and on my blog. Trust me, I’m not always a Downer. But when you’re a realist, it’s hard to see many silver linings in the political cloud cover.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on June 4, 2015.)

Hey, Tennessee! You can’t do that.

Despite being advised by the state’s attorney general (a Republican) that:

“Yes, designating The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and Article I, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution, which provides ‘that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.'”

…today the Tennessee state legislature did just that.

Aside from the blatant violation of the state and federal constitutions, here’s an unanswered question:

What version? Christians can’t agree on a single interpretation of the bible — let alone a single denomination — so how can politicians do so?

Yet another waste of time and money… and, of course, unconstitutional. So now the good people of Tennessee will see their hard-earned money wasted when the state has to go to court… and lose.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business



If I should take a notion
To jump into the ocean
‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do


Bessie Smith made that song famous in the Twenties, and singers ranging from Billie Holliday to Hank Williams Jr have offered their own versions over the years, all with the same fairly explicit message: don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. Sure, you may be curious about what someone else is doing, but there are limits to your involvement.
Say for example: your next door neighbor hires a contractor for a home improvement project. As long as your own property isn’t affected, your neighbor is under no obligation to provide you with specifics of the plan.
What if your co-worker takes a few days off for medical leave? You might be a bit concerned for his well-being, but you shouldn’t expect him to share the personal details of his diagnosis and treatment.
Or, turn it around. Perhaps you had intended to join a friend on a shopping trip but suddenly had to cancel because you needed to post bail for your brother-in-law. You’d probably not want to talk about such an embarrassing situation.
Clearly these are examples of how people should mind their own beeswax, right? Unless it affects you directly, life is on a need-to-know basis and you don’t need to know. But why do so many people think the opposite is true when it comes to private, intimate relationships?
Later this month, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments that may lead to the high court deciding once and for all if same-sex marriages should be legal and recognized by all 50 states. There are opponents who are declaring that such recognition would devalue what is seen as “traditional” marriage between one man and one woman. Similar arguments were made years ago in defense of anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized interracial marriage and intimate relationships, but the Supreme Court rejected those statutes with its ruling in Loving v Virginia in 1967. From that point forward, no state could prevent interracial relationships or marriage. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2000 that Alabama became the last state to remove such laws from its constitution. Loving v Virginia has been cited in some same-sex marriage court cases as a legal precedent, though it’s too early to tell if the nation’s highest court will concur.
Others suggest that the national legalization of same-sex marriage would be a slippery slope ruling, leading to recognized unions of other types. Again, such arguments were made by those wishing to prevent marriages between different races but their predictions have failed to materialize into fact.
Let me be clear: the notion that what two people do within the privacy of their lives together somehow changes the definition of your personal relationship is laughable. If you think that recognition of same-sex marriage will somehow magically cause your own heterosexual union to be worthless… or worth less… then the real discussion should be about why you don’t place more value on your own marriage.
Of course, opponents of same-sex marriage may also point to their religious beliefs as justification. While the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” — guarantees each one of us the freedom to worship as we please, it does not grant us the ability to use such beliefs to infringe upon the rights of others.
On a related note, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law which many say would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] individuals.
In the wake of this law, the backlash against Indiana’s economy has been swift and continues to grow. Companies such as Angie’s List are withdrawing expansion plans; others are threatening to boycott products manufactured in the state.
Many of the same religion-based arguments used in opposition to same-sex marriage are being cited by supporters of the law; most notably, that a person’s strongly-held beliefs should be considered as justification for that person refusing to do business with members of the LGBT community.
I’m sure some readers find what I’m saying here to be unsettling, and I’m sure I’ll be confronted with assorted scriptural references. Trust me, I’ve heard them before. Remember, we’re not talking about whether someone’s personally held religious beliefs are inherently wrong. Rather, we’re looking at how those beliefs can be used to harm others.

Quite a few people seem to be on a never-ending quest to attack those of a difference sexual orientation. I wonder how much good those politicians, pundits, and prominent religious leaders could do if they channeled the same energy into something positive.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on April 2, 2015.)

Trust never sleeps

Walter Cronkite, who as long-time anchor of the CBS Evening News, was known as “the most trusted man in America”. He and Edward R Murrow were seen as the epitome of honesty and integrity in journalism. Those two and many others set the standards for televised journalism, sifting through the nonsense to give Americans a clear, concise understanding of the events and people around us.
That was then. This is now.
NBC anchorman Brian Williams embellished his experiences during the first Gulf War and has lost practically all journalistic credibility. Williams claimed that he was riding in a helicopter that took on enemy fire when it turns out his aircraft was not in harm’s way. His recent retelling of the false story has resulted in a six-month suspension though it’s unlikely that he will be allowed to return to his job.
Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly has twisted the facts of events in his career, both on his television show and in his bestselling books. He has claimed to have reported from a war zone when he was actually over a thousand miles away… and he told various tales of witnessing violence, including suicides and murder, though there are recordings that prove that he did not experience those events in person.
Now, I’m not here to rip on Williams or O’Reilly. They’re big boys who will weather these storms. Both are financially secure and will continue to be well-compensated. O’Reilly, for one, seems to be thriving from the publicity as his TV ratings have inched upward in the wake of this controversy. And while Williams will not be a network news anchor ever again, it is quite possible that he will succeed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show later this year.
No, there’s no need to shed tears for either.
The thing is… we the viewing audience are expected to believe what we’re told by the people in front of the camera. Somehow, we believe that the person on television has credibility simply because of their stature… that certainly they are trustworthy or else they wouldn’t have been given such a prestigious post from which to report. Often, such as in the case of Williams and O’Reilly, we are misled. Our trust is broken. In some cases, we demand justice in the form of dismissal.
But perhaps we are too eager to be trusting. Just because people are made famous because of their position doesn’t automatically grant them some form of trustworthiness. I want someone to earn my trust. I have no intention of flipping the channel to some talking head on the news and granting that person my undying loyalty simply because he looks like someone who is telling the truth. I expect more, and so should you. Listen to what a person says, but do your own research. Don’t be so willing to be spoon-fed a few headlines when you should hunger for the details… so you can piece together your own informed opinion.
Now, before you think that I am too cynical for my own good, let’s pause. Yes, I do grant unilateral trust in people I barely know… and, to be honest, in people I will never know. And so do you.
You trust that the driver of the car coming in the opposite lane will maintain control. You trust that your doctor and pharmacist are knowledgeable and will do their best for your good health. You trust that the person who made your sandwich washed his hands first. All these mundane, routine occurrences of life… we trust others in part because we just don’t focus on those details.
(If, by mentioning these few things, I’ve made you feel a little bit paranoid… I apologize. Rest assured. Odds are the other driver IS in control, the doctor and pharmacist ARE using absolute care with your health, your sandwich IS free of contamination. Probably.)
By now, I’m starting to sound like I’m on some “good old days” kick, harkening back to a time when we didn’t have to worry about such things, a time when your neighbor was as good as his word. Sorry to burst your nostalgic bubble, but those days never existed. Mayberry USA is a figment of your imagination. People have been lying and cheating and conniving since the dawn of civilization. No one era was more innocent than any other, not is the modern generation more corrupt than those of the past. We’re just more aware of it now… with more options to be informed, even if those options are misleading.
I’ve gone down this rant pathway before, but it’s worth repeating: just because someone rich or famous or pretty says something, don’t allow yourself to believe it unconditionally. Invest some time and effort and look into the facts yourself.

And don’t just take my word for it. After all, I’m just some guy sitting in front of a computer.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on March 5, 2015.)