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.)

I hate myself for loving news

tv news

As far back in time as I can remember, I’ve been incredibly curious. From exploring the wilderness of my back yard to watching rockets launch men into space on a small black & white television screen, I was infatuated. Given the opportunity to watch the evening newscasts with my parents, I became aware at a very young age of the good and bad of the world. I watched Walter Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley as they explained about the tragedies of our fallen soldiers in a war halfway around the globe and the deaths of a couple men brought down by assassin’s bullets. Presidents gave speeches and reporters told me about other men who wanted to get elected. I watched, listened, and learned… and wanted more. Fortunately, I had plenty to keep me interested.

Not only did I pay attention to what I watched and heard, but I started digging deeper into the news of the day. With the help of radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, and several well-worn volumes of my trusty encyclopedia, I threw myself head first into what has become a lifelong passion for politics and the people who seek elected office. Since my coming of age was during the Nixon years, I had plenty of fresh material. As I was learning about how our government is structured and the duties of various offices, I was also watching a presidency collapsing, brought down from within.

President Nixon was his own worst enemy, causing his own fall from grace because of a pattern of illegal activity and efforts to keep the wrongdoings secret. But thanks to a few determined members of the news media — many of whom were subjected to not so subtle threats by Nixon and his team — the lies and the crimes were uncovered.

I am a self-professed news junkie. More specifically, I am addicted to politics. I read a couple daily newspapers and a few of the weeklies. I watch a fair amount of politically-themed talk shows, and study many magazine articles. Nearly everyone I follow on Twitter is either a member of government or a reporter on the political beat. I’ll admit: sometimes it results in information overload, and I’ll need to turn away from it all to decompress. It isn’t long, of course, until I’ll back for more. I guess I crave the punishment. But, like I said, I’m very curious.

Today, we live in a 24/7 news cycle. Thanks to the internet, we have many more options to be informed about the people whom we have voted into positions of power, as well as the staff members they bring along for the ride. As I’ve written before, we have no excuse for not knowing what the politicians are saying and doing. But too many of us choose to be under-informed, relying on family members or Facebook friends to filter the news, rather than seeking out the facts for ourselves. Social media has its place in keeping us entertained, but it’s no substitute for factual reporting.

In these early days of the new administration — and in the campaign that led us here — we’ve seen members of the news media come under assault for nothing more than doing their jobs. Much like Nixon nearly a half century ago, President Trump is using the power of his position to attack reporters, commentators, and even entire news organizations. Trump and his staff regularly label any non-favorable reports as “fake news”, telling supporters that these media outlets are villains. The president even went so far as to declare on Twitter (and in various public appearances) that certain networks and newspapers were the “enemy of the American people”.

Now, it’s fine to have your own opinion. It’s perfectly okay to vent your feelings. But when the President of the United States points his finger and calls someone the enemy, that’s crossing a dangerous line. There are many unstable people in this country. What if one of them hears the president make such an inflammatory remark and decides to attack a reporter? Reporters have needed the assistance of police officers to escort them safely from the events they are covering. NBC’s Katy Tur even received Secret Service protection when she was singled out by then-candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally.

And let me just say this: if President Obama had made that kind of threatening remark aimed at the news media, Republicans in Congress would have wasted no time in calling him anti-American for attacking the First Amendment. But I guess things are different now.

When it comes to the news, you don’t have to agree with everything you read or hear or watch. But at least you should respect the need for a free and accessible press. After all, our forefathers did.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald March 2, 2017.)

The wrath of Don

Shatner

A month ago, I expressed my hopes that our newly-minted president would prove me wrong, that he would assume the office with the best intentions, and would begin the task of governing the world’s only superpower with dignity and distinction. Instead, he entered his term by amping up the same childishness and petty behavior that he thought was necessary throughout the campaign.

President Trump wasted no time. On the day he was inaugurated, in his very first official act, Trump signed an executive action that cancelled a previous-approved interest rate reduction for homeowners all across the country. The rate cut on FHA loans, which had been authorized by President Obama, would have meant an estimated annual savings of $500 for these Americans. You can imagine those families using that money to buy furniture or clothes or groceries. But thanks to our new president, that money will go to the federal government. Funny, isn’t it? The man elected by people who insist that government is too big turned around and took money from the pockets of so many moms and dads who are struggling to give their kids a nice home.

The next day, right after the president woke up for the first time in the White House, he returned to Twitter and began yet another needless battle with the news media, this time over the size of the crowd that gathered in Washington and saw the president take the oath of office. Let’s face it: anyone with at least one good eye could see that attendance at Obama’s 2009 swearing-in was much larger than the audience for Mr. Trump. The grown-up thing to do in that situation would be to acknowledge the difference, make a joke about it, and move on. But that’s not what happened.


The president chose to deny the facts, then directed his press secretary to repeat the same falsehoods during the live broadcast of his very first press briefing. The president’s people continued the assault on reality on the Sunday talk shows and beyond. The result? America’s (and the world’s) first impression of President Trump is of a man who cannot tell the difference between fact and fantasy. How is that supposed to give us confidence in the competency of the person given the codes to our nuclear arsenal?

In the days immediately following inauguration, President Trump and his handlers unleashed what can only be described as the first wave in an all out attack on the First Amendment. In addition to continuing his attacks on the news media (freedom of the press), including calls by his staffers for reporters to be fired because they weren’t favorable to the administration, the president’s team tried its best to demonize the multitudes of women (and men) who gathered and marched in peaceful protest against the policies and actions of the president (freedom of assembly).

Then, to cap off a raucous first week, President Trump rushed together an executive order that calls for a ban on refugees and other immigrants — and even just visitors — from seven Muslim-majority countries… an order that had little to no input from people in Homeland Security, the State Department, or the Pentagon. An order that was deeply flawed because of that rush to implement… as it even prevented permanent residents (“green card” holders) from returning to their American homes. As much as the administration tried to pass it off as a means of protecting the country, the fact that Christians and Jews are to be exempt makes it very clear: the president wants to use the power of the federal government to target members of a particular faith (freedom of religion).

In just one week, President Trump acted to override the protected rights set down over two hundred years ago. At that rate, he could easily circumvent the rest of the amendments before the Fourth of July.

Friends and family have been telling me, “Give him time. Give him a chance. Show him some respect.” To them I say, “Just look at the damage done in just a few days.” As for respect, I need only to look back at the past eight years with a combative, do-nothing Congress for an example of disrespect.

Trump managed to be elected by distracting his audience with catch phrases. He made outrageous promises punctuated with even more outrageous language, all to get laughs and applause. He wasn’t running for President; he was just out there doing very bad stand-up comedy.

Unfortunately, because too many people decided they wanted a game-show host in the White House, we’re stuck with him until he either grows tired of the pulling the con… or he’s removed from office.


Either way, our nation has been deeply wounded.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald February 2, 2017.)

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.)

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.)