Archive for October, 2009

Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name in News?

Wednesday night was an indication of how a satirist and comedian has been able to outflank serious journalists in earning a reputation of integrity.   Stewart had two Mideast activists on his show, a Jewish human rights activist Anna Baltzer and a Palestinian pro-democracy advocate Mustafa Barghouti.   Their message: the way to peace in Palestine is through diplomacy and non-violent reconciliation.   They criticized Israel for creating the problem through its long repression of the Palestinians, and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  They suggested that such conditions certainly can inspire extremist reactions.   They spoke of reason and non-violence.

At the time I didn’t realize I was watching something extremely controversial.   In fact, I graded papers, thinking the “good” part of the show was over.   Only this morning do I read that pro-Israel groups are incensed, angry that Stewart wasn’t “fair and balanced” enough to have a hardline Israel proponent on the show, and calling for a boycott of the Daily Show.

Before taping, the Daily Show and the two guests were pressured to cancel and not go on.   It was clear that powerful forces did not want this discussion to air on US television, and if the station involved had been CNN, FOX or MSNBC, it certainly would not have.   The mainstream stations would have wilted under pressure and threats from pro-Israeli voices, feeling forced to talk about “Palestinian suicide bombers” and focus on this as a conflict that must be settled by one side “winning.”   Such a discussion would not be allowed, it would risk advertising dollars and generate negative publicity.

Yet the myth of “fair and balanced” news is more poisonous to accurate reporting than even the real existence of bias.  Consider: if someone is talking about the holocaust, does one need to have a holocaust denier present to have the news be fair and balanced?   If one is interviewing a free marketeer does one have to have a Communist present to rebut the points?   If you interview survivors of 9-11, are you required to have Islamic extremists present the pro-terrorism viewpoint in order to have balance?   No, I’m not saying Israel’s position is akin to any of these, only that the idea of ‘fair and balanced’ is really always a biased and subjective call.   The range of ‘acceptible positions’ is relatively narrow, and it is not at all uncommon to leave out many perspectives.

Jon Stewart is Jewish.   One of his guests was Jewish, the other Palestinian.   Could it be that the Israeli hardliners are really upset about the fact that a perspective friendly to the concerns of the Palestinians is being put forth by Jews?   Does that perhaps risk undercutting the myth that there are only two points of view, the Jewish and the Palestinian, and that the question is whether terrorism is worse than Israeli security actions?   Is the real threat the reframing of the debate, meaning that the pro-Israel side can’t frame it in a way favorable to themselves?

Perhaps one way to be fair and balanced is to consider different ways of framing a debate.   It can be a Jew and a Palestinian discussing ways to peacefully solve the problem, or it can be Jews and Palestinians arguing about who is more to blame.   In the former, violence is seen as misguided form both sides, and each are called to take steps to bring a peaceful resolution to the problem.   In the latter, you have to choose which side’s violence is legitimate by deciding which kind of violence is worse.  In the former, both can work together for mutual benefit.  In the latter, one side must win and the other side lose.

If the mainstream media stays “fair and balanced” by going with the latter perspective without taking into account the Barghouti-Baltzer perspective, isn’t Stewart doing the public a service by showing the other perspective, one generally silenced by the mainstream media?   Isn’t the courage to do so in the face of massive pressure from those who want to shape the public framing of the debate something we want from our newspeople?   Why do they not provide it, why do we rely on our satirists?   This isn’t the first time I’ve made this point about Stewart’s contribution, I also brought it up when he had his monumental interview with Jim Cramer.

Yet it may seem odd that an academic whose methodology has involved analyzing media (the subject matter has been German foreign policy) should promote a comedian to the status of the most trusted name in news.   Jon Stewart is not truly a journalist nor a newsperson.    He should not be the most trusted name in news, and if pushed I’m sure I could find a number of serious journalists who do dig and are unafraid of pressure; indeed, most news anchors are not true journalists but good looking hosts.   Still, Stewart does seem to show the hypocrisies and dis-ingenuity of politicians of all stripes in a way most mainstream journalists do not.

He mocks the way the mainstream news media covered a so-called “Obama war on Fox,” and then juxtaposed a Cal Thomas condemnation of Obama for trying to silence the media with un-American pressure with praise he gave a year earlier for the Bush Administration’s similar attack on MSNBC.  If only the mainstream media would out hypocrisy so clearly — and Stewart shows no mercy to the Democrats on such things either.

The problem seems to be that the news media is caught in a voyeuristic effort to present different narratives without seriously trying to investigate the internal coherence and evidential support of each one.    They bow to pressure prefer a ‘he said, she said’ reporting to ‘what might be wrong with what each of them said.’   The result?   People trust a comedian more than their news media for understanding current events.  And, as much as I enjoy Jon Stewart, we shouldn’t have to leave it up to our satirists and comedians to help us critically assess world events.


A Conservative Foreign Policy

Conservatives argue against social engineering.  The idea that the power of the state can be brought to bear on society in a way that will shape and transform that society is seen as arrogant and dangerous.   It is dangerous because the government will be tempted to abuse power to achieve transformation, denying liberty and free choice; it is arrogant because the government and political leaders put themselves on a pedestal to determine how the proper society should look.

This is a powerful conservative argument, and the dangers of over-bureaucratization and government intrusion into every day life have been proven time and time again around the world.   It also is, at base, not an ideological argument.  It’s not saying that government has no role to play, or that the state should “leave everything to the markets.”  Rather, the state’s role should be complementary to the culture and social norms of a society, and in fixing problems should go slowly and avoid attempts to radically manipulate the culture.  Indeed, conservatism is fundamentally anti-ideological because it distrusts those who claim to know the “Truth” with a capital “T.”

In the US, the so-called conservative movement has veered away from this.   In the Limbaughs and Hannitys, as well as many Republican leaders in politics, conservatism has sometimes become a radical ideology in its own right.   Many conservatives have their own view of how the country should be, and see their political movement as a force for change.  Looked at this way, Senator Olympia Snowe, who considers health care reform as a problem solving approach but wants to minimize the scope of change, is a truer conservative than those who want to fight an ideological jihad.   True conservatism is pragmatic.  Original conservatism in fact saw society as an organic whole, with culture and tradition trumping theory and ideology.

Nowhere has the Republican party veered farther from conservatism in recent years than in foreign policy.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan an ideology-driven view of reality convinced President Bush that democracy would flourish there if only the dictators were removed and the US made the region “safe for democracy.”   This envisioned a massive big government social engineering experiment in the region, remaking post-Ottoman culture into one that would support an enlightened democracy.  This would require tolerance of diverse opinions and groups, political compromise, effective rule of law, and accountability.  This so-called “neo-conservatism” was really a radical militarist liberalism, with ambitious designs to shape the world in our image.  Its aggressive dismissal of “old Europe” when France and Germany wouldn’t play along, and belief that somehow the US would succeed and convince others to join has a brashness traditional conservatives would reject.

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to embrace a neo-liberal foreign policy which focuses on building economic links and transnational efforts at building global governance.   The goal is to build institutions to facilitate cooperation and provide predictability in world politics so that states can cooperate with confidence, and make sacrifices when need be, knowing that other states will do likewise.  The goal is to minimize the danger caused by relative power differentials so that states don’t see the system as a competitive anarchy.   Rather, it is an orderly confederation, with systems of conflict resolution.   Included in this is a focus on international law, with a hope for cooperation to promote human rights.

When Obama was elected, Europeans had high hopes that Obama would radically shift US foreign policy from neo-conservative unilateralism to a cooperative institutionalist approach.   Yet the role the US is expected to play in such a system is wrought with contradictions.   The US is the premier military power, and thus should play the lead role in Afghanistan.    We should provide most of the muscle, but not try to dominate the decision making — that’s a tough thing to ask anyone to do in any context!   The American public remains skeptical of many international institutions, especially if we’re not leading.   Neo-liberal institutionalism is out of step with US political culture.

Is there a third way — a conservative foreign policy?   A conservative foreign policy would recognize first that as a superpower the US faces international obligations in a manner differently from other states.  Canada, Germany and EU states can devout their entire armed forces to peace keeping missions, but the US clearly cannot.  That would be a much larger burden.   The US by dint of its size and geographic position has different interests, and culturally the US is not as ‘global’ minded as the EU.    So how might a conservative foreign policy look?

First, it would be more realist in character than activist.   The US would rethink its global role and redefine interests more specifically to protect the US, and defend against threats from abroad.   This might include a rethinking of NATO and other alliance obligations, and certainly would require a downsizing of foreign commitments.    By moving away from either neo-conservatism or trying to be a guarantor of global stability, the US would save a lot of money and not get sucked into interventions that weaken the country and kill US soldiers.   In short, the US would give a nod to its “isolationist” heritage and step back from trying to shape world affairs.

In response to pressures from neo-liberal institutionalism, the US could agree to be involved in institutions from a perspective of national interest.   This would mean that the US might not be as involved in building international governance as the Europeans would prefer, but it also would mean that the US wouldn’t feel a need to undercut major global treaties or institutions like the International Criminal Court.   In my heart I would like a more activist US, but the reality is that given the political culture, the difficulty in passing treaties, and the specific interests of the country, a gap in perspective and policy between the EU and the US is inevitable.   If we’re not trying to shape or undercut global efforts, that’s better than trying to shape or undercut them.

This still leaves open a wide range of unresolved questions.   Is a tough global climate change treaty in our interest?   What are our interests vis-a-vis the third world?   How do we respond or deal with countries whose human rights policies we oppose?   Those issues would be worked out politically within the US, and we’d choose to cooperate to the extent that a public will to cooperate emerges.

I write this as someone whose foreign policy perspective is far more European than American.   I tend to embrace the kind of multilateral approach of Germany, which is skeptical of sovereignty and very supportive of institutions.   Yet in looking at the state of American politics, that kind of approach isn’t likely to emerge here any time soon.   Given the economic and global challenges the country faces, the “Cold War mentality” is anachronistic, and neo-conservatism has already failed.   A conservative foreign policy may be the best way to avoid disasters which occur when a state tries to maintain a level of power and control it is no longer capable of exercising.

The left will want more active engagement to solve problems, focus on human rights, and work on global concerns.  The right will want the US to recapture its role as the superpower guarantor of peace and stability, and try to maintain a global leadership role.    The left will be disappointed because their goals aren’t reflected yet in American political culture.  The right will be disappointed because the US lacks the money and capacity to maintain a hegemonic role.  The best alternative for now would be a conservative approach or cutting back on our commitments, focusing on direct interests, and cooperating with others in a mutually beneficial manner.


Greenspan’s Confession

It’s been almost one year to the day from one of the most remarkable confessions in recent political history.  Alan Greenspan, speaking before a Congressional hearing, admitted that he had been wrong.   Not only had he been wrong about policy, but wrong about “how the world works.”  Greenspan said it was distressing, but his ideology — the lens through which he interpreted reality — turned out to have been proven faulty.

Greenspan was a libertarian, a firm believer in markets and devotee of Russian fiction writer and political activist Ayn Rand.  In fact, she and he were friends, and he counted her as among the greatest influences in his life.   Rand’s work, for those who haven’t read her, is very inspirational.  It connects emotionally with the desire and need people have to take control of their lives and be masters of their own destinies.  She tried to turn her work into a philosophy (which she called ‘objectivism,’ an odd term since it can also be an adjective that describes even Marxian philosophy), but in that endeavor she failed.   To really buttress libertarian ideology you need to turn to the likes of Friedrich Hayek, who offered a more profound defense of markets.   Still, her spirited defense of laissez-faire capitalism and, as Greenspan always used to say “the markets get it right” shaped the world view of the former Federal Reserve leader.

Greenspan admitted that he had to make compromises with his principles to become a Central Banker.  He would have to enforce laws he didn’t agree with, and work in a system which he felt was fundamentally flawed in its embrace of big government.  Yet he also believed he could work from within the system to reform it, rather than stand on the sidelines and curse.   In that, he was effective.   His work assured that even the liberal Clinton administration would embrace the free market principles Greenspan promoted.

Last week Frontline aired a segment on PBS called “The Warning,” which detailed the losing battle of Brooksley Born , head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to try to regulate the growing over the counter derivative market.   These financial instruments allowed big players to leverage small amounts of capital into vast fortunes, and thus make a killing in the market.   She saw, correctly, that this kind of instrument was very dangerous, and could cause a financial meltdown if not regulated.   As it was, no one knew the extent of the trading, fraud was easily possible (these trades weren’t reported), and the entire financial system was at risk.

Greenspan, Jerry Rubin and Lawrence Summers (the latter two on Obama’s economic team) lead the free market charge against reform, working with banking industry lobbyists and Congress to fight against the regulations, and ultimately take the power to regulate these markets away from the CFTC.  That lead to Born’s resignation in 1999, and Greenspan for the next few years seemed king of the economic world — the wizard, the guru, the genius that somehow managed to shepard in a long period of GDP growth, low inflation, and vast expansion of stock and then property values.  Things would never be as good as they were in 2006, the year Greenspan retired.

We know now, of course, that these unregulated financial instruments caused disaster in the system.   While some want to blame it on mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them, that sector of the market would have been small and insignificant if it hadn’t been fodder for derivative leveraging and other shady unregulated financial instruments.   In fact, the reason why so many experts dismissed the subprime crisis as minor is because they thought it was simply a problem with some loans that shouldn’t have been made.   They didn’t realize that a stack of cards had been built on that shaky foundation, and whose collapse would endanger the entire world economy.

What’s amazing in watching the video of an obviously distressed and some would say broken Alan Greenspan is that he saw his life’s work and reputation going from that of a successful economic genius guided by a clear moral and economic philosophy of free markets, to the man whose inaction and inability caused economic crisis.  He was unable to recognize the way in which “stupid mistakes” and “irrational exuberance,” unregulated, could bring immense harm to an entire economic system.    He realized too late that markets are not magic, and cannot work without effective rule of law and regulation.

Greenspan let an ideology guide his view of practical reality.  That has been proven disastrous throughout history.  Yet humans, wanting to have a coherent view of the world, and wanting to think themselves “right,” grasp at ideologies as ways to explain reality and justify their actions and political perspectives.   It’s much like religion — people want to think they have the capacity to understand reality and how it works, and they seek an set of beliefs and assumptions to structure that understanding.  There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn’t become dogma.

As long as someone recognizes and embraces the fact that, as a fallible human, his or her beliefs might be wrong, and thus recognizes the need for not only tolerance of other views, but real consideration of diverse perspectives, it’s good to have a coherent core belief system.  As long as one is not just other-critical but also self-critical, it is something to build upon.  Greenspan was convinced he was right, and for awhile, the evidence seemed to strongly support that view.

Yet when he sat before that committee chaired by Henry Waxman, he had the intellectual integrity to admit to the country, the Congress, and most importantly to himself that he had gotten it wrong.   The world doesn’t work the way he thought it did, the world surprised him.

The lesson from Greenspan to us all is that no matter how much we think we understand reality, and no matter how convincing our own core beliefs seem to be, any of us may be wrong.   Greenspan is a genius.  He had apparent success for decades.  Yet he really should have seen the warnings on the horizon.   In hindsight it’s easy to recognize the inevitability of this crisis and, to be fair to libertarians, another libertartian economist, Peter Schiff (Austrian school) did see how the economy was heading for a collapse.

We humans have a real hard time with cognitive dissonance.  We will go to great lengths, sometimes consciously, but usually subconsciously, to find ways to fit reality into our pre-existing belief system.  We will interpret events, religious teachings, philosophy, and history to fit our beliefs of how the world works.  I do that.  You do that.  That seems to be a constant of human nature.

Greenspan, like all of us, are not completely right or completely wrong, but right on many points and wrong on many others.  An ideology is also not correct or incorrect, but a simplification of reality designed to help us understand and predict.   Ideologies inevitably work well dealing with some aspects of reality, but fall short on others; indeed, the meaning of an ideology varies across cultural contexts.   Greenspan’s confession does not mean all of what he believed was disproven, it means only that reality didn’t quite hang together the way he thought he did.

And lest we get too smug about the Chairman’s fall, we’re all in the same boat — our errors usually aren’t as easily noticed and publicized.  And, of course, all humans tend to need a crisis now and then to jerk them out of their complacency.   To really embrace this view is, in its own way,  liberating.   If we realize that we can’t be right all the time, then we relieve ourselves of the pressure of thinking we must.


Superficial Positivity

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my favorite authors, and last week she was on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, talking about her new book which says that “positivity” and the emphasis on positive thinking in America is destroying the country.   I’m a firm believer in the importance and power of positive thinking, and believe attitude is fundamental to having a joyful, successful life.   Yet I also agreed with what she said in the interview.   She wasn’t talking about having a healthy positive attitude, but superficial or artificial positivity that leads to delusional thinking.   Learning to distinguish between the two is important.

The examples Ehrenreich gave were things such as telling people sick with something like breast cancer to embrace their illness and see the positive side the experience, or the wild new agey schemes about ‘drawing wealth through positive thoughts’ or businesses promoting positivity in order to increase profits and assure success.   The most potent example is how so many people refused to see the underlying problems in the economy due to an effort to be positive — the housing market will continue to rise, the economy is in great shape.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been a pessimist on the economy for a long time.  Unsustainable imbalances involving debt and massive current account deficits have created the perfect storm of a deep and severe economic crisis.  I don’t think we’re anywhere near done with it, nor can it be wished away with happy thoughts.   Yet I’m also a firm believe in the power and importance of a positive attitude.   Is this a contradiction?

No.  Superficial positivity in denial of reality is nothing but delusion.   Tell a person who is upset, angry or depressed to simply ‘think positively’ is like telling someone sneezing and coughing to “think a clear nasal passage.”  You can’t do it.

Let’s say the most spiritual and extreme views on positive thinking are accurate.   Let’s assume for a second that your thoughts do form reality, your internal mood and self is reflected in external conditions, and your attitude determines which probable quantum reality you inhabit.  Even making these radical assumptions, superficial positivity is destined to fail.

If mantras,  affirmations, and thoughts directly shape reality, I should be able to, oh, grow another inch, know the winning powerball numbers, walk on water and swim through dirt.   I think it’s fair to say that I can’t do it, and it appears no one can.   Our personality is largely subconscious and contains a myriad of beliefs, thoughts, and values that we are not aware of.  If I deeply believe that “people are basically selfish” that belief is much more powerful than an affirmation that “people are good,” even if were repeated all day.    If positivity is going to work, it has to be deeply held and believed by someone, not simply used in a gimmicky way.

Our deep psychological drives, identities, and beliefs do not change on a dime.   Moreover, even as we mouth phrases and affirmations, our interpretations of reality both consciously and subconsciously constantly suggest to our minds thoughts and ideas that may be diametrically opposed to those of superficial positivity.

Consider this new age favorite: “think positively to draw wealth to yourself.”  Contained within such a suggestion are a few assumptions:  “I need money, I do not have wealth, wealth is necessary for my well being, I want wealth, wealth will solve my problems.”   All of these thoughts are, at base, negative.  The idea that wealth is necessary for happiness, meaning and well being is a fundamentally negative view on life and the spirit.  The idea that superficial positive thoughts would overcome these negative perspectives is absurd.   Even if positive thinking works to draw experiences to people, it probably would only draw wealth to someone who truly doesn’t believe they need it.    The only real positive perspective is to see wealth is irrelevant.   Few among us are that positive!

Positive thinking about the economy, a war, a business deal and the like all suffer similar flaws.   The superficial positivity masks core values and beliefs which contradict that positive view.     Even worse, efforts to push out conscious negativity lead one to embrace delusion and not only ignore but actively ridicule and reject dissonant perspectives.    Someone thinking positively about their stock portfolio has not only the host of contradictory negative thoughts (I need my stocks to rise, wealth is important to me, I’ll be happier if I’m rich, etc.), but the ego is hampered from engaging the reality principle to stop impending disaster.   The Id screams to the Ego “don’t worry be happy,” while the superego, now convinced that the correct path is positive thinking, agrees with the Id!

If you believe positive thinking is powerful, and if you believe that reality reflects internal thoughts and beliefs, the best path towards a better future is introspection, personal growth, and an honest working through issues of depression, anger, sadness and stress.   Building a positive attitude may require re-examining core beliefs, and trying to alter habits and behaviors.   It means recognizing and often rejecting the myriad of little suggestions sent to our brain about what we need or want in order to be happy and have meaning.  It requires an effort at self-liberation from cultural hypnosis.

Superficial positivity is like a fat man thinking “I will be thin,” but not changing his eating or exercise habits.  The path to positive thinking requires something akin to a work out regimen and a strict diet.  It means taking the spiritual side of life seriously, trying out what works, and learning to live with the ignorance principle — that when it comes to figuring out the nature of this reality, we have no way of knowing for sure if we have it right or not.   And that’s OK!

I don’t know if spiritual positivity is true or not; it seems to work for me in my life, and I continue to try to examine and improve myself with a love and appreciation of life.   I am convinced, however, that superficial positivity is destructive and delusional, more likely to lead to crisis than happiness.


The Way Life Should Be

It’s been a busy month, as the lowered number of blog entries this October shows.  Today, nothing heavy — just a short bit of praise for life in Maine.

Saturday the neighbors have an old fashioned “Big Squeeze” party, turning apples into cider.  We spent a few hours on a beautiful autumn day drinking some cider and chatting about various things, with the kids running around with other kids having fun.   The neighbors have a beautiful rural Maine yard, with some sheep, right on the woods, and the setting and socializing was relaxing and enjoyable.

Sunday was soccer, as kids Kindergarten through sixth grade play, learning the game, taught by high school coaches every Sunday in September and October.   They have their uniforms, cleats, shin guards and play pretty good.   The Kindergarteners have their own learning sessions, while the rest are in two divisions — the younger (grades 1 through 3) and older (grades 4 through 6).  They play four ten minute quarters, and all together just under 200 kids are involved.  We mingle and talk to friends and other parents, as people good naturedly cheer on their teams.

After soccer, we decide to go to the local theater to watch “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”   Tickets are $5 for adults, and $3 for children.  Popcorn is $2.   The seats are big and comfortable, reclining slightly — the best movie theater seats I’ve ever experienced.  The leg room is exceptional.   The movie is fun.   When we arrive we see the college soccer game over in the nearby fields — a series of ball and soccer fields next to the river.  It’s tempting to go watch, but of course the movie is starting soon.

Monday is the first day of soccer playoffs.  It feels almost like a Norman Rockwell painting as the kids sit listening to the local high school coach praise their efforts.  The sun is setting — it’s 5:30, but it is a warm autumn night, about 50 degrees.  The lights are on for the field, kids are laughing, and though its past peak, the autumn leaves on the trees are blowing around.   They start with the national anthem, a recording played as people look on to the flag out on the far end of the field.   The kids are told they can put their hand on their hearts “if they want to,” but they should be quiet.  The coach wants them to demonstrate being quiet by asking “do you understand me” and having them be silent.  He tries about ten times, but the kids never get it.  First they yell “yes,” and then “no,” thinking that’s what he wants…and finally the recording starts playing and the children become quiet.

Ryan’s team wins 1-0 to advance to the semi-finals, thanks to some really good players on the team (Ryan is unafraid, but inexperienced — he’s lucky to be on a good team), but the parents are good natured on both sides.  The teams have fun, and now that it’s cold after dark, the bigger kids take the field for their game.  The kids are laughing and enjoying themselves.   A few are disappointed that their season ended tonight, but that’s one of the lessons of sports — you don’t win all the time.   Semi-finals on Wednesday.

Tuesday evening I decide to try to give Ryan some practice so I pick the boys up from day care/after school care, and after grabbing a snack at the local down town market, head to the school.   We get out the soccer ball and run around.  Other kids are there, and for awhile they play a game of anarchical soccer — no goals or rules, just having fun.   They take a break and play on the playground with some other kids, I play monster for three year old Dana who is laughing hysterically as we run around.   The other kids leave, it’s after 6:00, and the boys are still kicking around the soccer ball, as it gets darker and darker.   Though it’s getting chilly, they refuse their coats.  Finally, they’re tired and it’s time to go home.

At some point tonight as I watched them run around, and thought about this weekend, I realized that at least for this small town, the Maine motto “the way life should be” rings true.  The community putting together a soccer program that creates real fun and learning for young children, the cheap but comfortable movie theater, the glorious beauty of autumn.  Having fun with neighbors, children laughing playing outside, this is magical.  In a world where it’s easy to feel nostalgic about the past, or spend time planning and worrying about the future, I spent this weekend basking in and enjoying the present.


Personality and Politics

Why do we have the views we hold?   I was struck by the way in which it becomes painfully obvious how the right and left view things differently (thanks again to Jon Stewart and the power of satire).

The right claims that the media virtually ignored the “tea party” march on Washington on September 12, which brought 50,000 to 70,000 to DC, with Fox News anchors like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity pumping up the crowd and giving the rally massive coverage.   In fact, that rally was in part a media creation, driven by the radio personalities appealing to the right.   America is waking up and demanding Obama be stopped!

Yet, when 50,000 to 70,000 march in DC for gay rights, Fox hardly mentions the story and certainly doesn’t claim that America is waking up and demanding that discrimination against gays stop.   One commentator boldly claimed that an anti-government rally is news while a gay rights rally isn’t.   I have no idea where that logic comes from.

In fact, if you read blatantly conservative vs. blatantly liberal blogs and newsfeeds, you find two entirely different universes.  In the “conservative” universe there will be a focus on anything anti-Obama, and minor tidbits (quotes from speeches that might be embarrassing, etc.) are trumpeted as something profound and important.  If you read blogs and newsfeeds from the left, you’ll see much different results.   There it will focus on the foibles of the right, and stories that put their own ideology in a positive light.   There are also sub-universes for socialists, gun ‘enthusiasts,’ libertarians, and the like.   They scour the news for stories that fit their perspective; they interpret stories within their ideology.

Since most people tend to read what they agree with already, people believe that their viewpoint is more widely shared than it is.  People literally construct realities that they inhabit, certain that their evidence demolishes the views of the other side.  The other side doesn’t know it because it is populated by a mix of idiots, deceivers, and dangerous ideologues with “agendas” to implement.   In a world with a vast cornucopia of evidence and information, every bit able to be interpreted in a variety of ways, it is possible to support any position, and “demolish” any other position.

The hard part is learning how to get beyond that.  Not to settle into a world view, be comfortable there, defend it, and experience the emotions of righteous rage and self-righteous indignation.  The hard part is to find a way to try to get closer to understand how things really are, even though there always uncertainty in a world as complex as this one, subject to multiple interpretations.

There are ways to do this.   First, learn to understand other perspectives.   For those on the left, understand how fans of Glenn Beck think, why people are drawn to Ann Coulter, or how some with a straight face can slam all liberals as morons and socialists.   It’s not easy.   Glenn Beck, for instance, is entertaining and self-effacing enough to be likable.  He’s also a radio entertainer from the “morning zoo” movement.   His charges, often over the top, are not unlike parallel charges from those on the far left.

On the far left, groups accuse America of being a blood thirsty state controlled by big money lining its own pockets, manipulating and using anyone they can.  They point to the horrors of our wars, the environmental devastation of capitalist over-consumption, and big money’s control over politics and media.   To them American capitalism is dangerous, even evil.  When I hear that, I think, “well, they’re going a bit too far, but they have some good points.  And, gee, maybe they are right, maybe I’m being a bit naive.”

Most on the right, when they hear shock jocks like Coulter, Beck and Hannity react in a similar manner.  The “over the top” stuff is more entertaining than the serious and strident left, so they learn to enjoy it, even if they aren’t absolutely convinced.  As one conservative said, “of course Liberals aren’t all evil, we’re all Americans wanting what’s best, it’s just funny how Rush Limbaugh jerks liberal chains.”   When I think of it that way, they’re reaction is understandable.   And, of course, when they hear the far left, they think the neo-Marxists are as weirdly off the wall dangerously looney as I might consider Limbaugh and Coulter.   So…I start to understand how the ‘other side’ views things, and can navigate their perspective.

I’ll also go to blogs where views are different than my own.  In fact, contrary to the norm, the political blogs I read are almost all from people with whom I disagree.   I challenge them, and some (like Renaissance Guy) takes even rather blunt challenges politely, and responds with reasoned arguments.    I like him, and find myself annoyed by those who call him a racist for criticizing Obama.   Yet other cites will take anything I write and attack me (often not the argument) with intense insults, hoping perhaps to get under my skin (not possible — I know the blog comment game too well going back to the usenet in the 90s), or to make me go away to protect the ‘purity’ of the group.   Yet in both reactions I learn more about how others are thinking, I learn to understand that perspective.

And, of course, there are commentators here, like classicliberal2, who is more to the left, who also has a polite but provocative way of putting forth a perspective that counters those on the right.  I certainly can understand that perspective as well — more easily, since it is closer to my own.

So ultimately step one is to learn to identify with and understand other perspectives.  Step two is to self-critique — do the others have a point, either left or right?   Where might I be in error?  Usually I find faults with the arguments of others, and my own perspective remains the most convincing.  Yet I know that is not because I am right, but because I, like everyone else, has a perspective deeply rooted in core beliefs about the world and how it works, and about both human nature and the nature of humanity.    Then it hits me: the reason so much of the debate can’t be resolved is that we hold our positions not because of conclusions based on the evidence, but who we are deep inside.  In a fundamental way, personality drives political perspective.

This isn’t a new or radical theory.  The Frankfurt School in the middle of the 20th century connected the “authoritarian personality” to the rise of Hitler.   William James thought philosophical differences arose from differences in temperment.  Personality gives us our understanding of the self and our environment.  One who is distrustful, has low self-esteem, and believes the world to be a cruel, nasty place will have views on politics and life which reflect that notion.  One who believes life is a gift, is beautiful, and that others are fundamentally good, will have a perspective reflecting that.   Most of us are somewhere inbetween, but have deep core beliefs and values that are resilient despite ongoing experience.   Indeed, we protect them by interpreting the world through those values.   It doesn’t guarantee “left or right,” but shapes ways in which the political and social world are comprehensible to the individual.

Yet that creates a problem: if political differences reflect personality as much if not more than the “facts of the case,” how do we resolve them?  The answer seems simple and born out in experience: we need a political culture that accepts differences and allows people to tolerate each other and make compromises.   Where we see political cultures like that, we find stable systems of governance.  Where there is rigidity and refusal to accept difference, there is often violence and oppression.   The individual confronts politics in the realm of culture and society.   More to come…


Olympia Snowe’s Brilliant Strategy

Olympia Snowe may be proving herself the only Republican with a brain on the health care issue.   At the very least, she’s the only one who seems to recognize that there is a difference between legislating and focusing on the next election.   While some on the right gnash their teeth and hurl insults at Maine’s senior Republican Senator, she is doing more to help conservatives and hurt liberal Democrats than any one else in the GOP at this time.

The reality is that the Democrats have large majorities in the House and Senate, and if push comes to shove they can and will use “reconciliation” to avoid a Senate filibuster, meaning they could pass something with only 51 votes.   As I noted before, that wouldn’t be pretty, but it’s better than Obama coming away from this empty handed.   The Republican response seems to be to try to force the Democrats to pass something that they could pounce on, noting that no Republican came on board.  This wouldn’t do anything to forestall the legislation, but might give them a shot at winning back the House in 2010.   Of course, the legislation passed would remain on the books, and by the time the Republicans get both a President and control of both houses (necessary to rescind it) it may well be that the legislation will be too entrenched to get rid of.

Simply, the GOP strategy is focused on electoral politics, not shaping the legislation.  It also has helped keep a fractured Democratic party united at least in appearance on this issue.  If the GOP dug in its heels completely, that would strengthen liberals in the Democratic party, who would recognize that the “one vote to pass” requirement in both the House and Senate would mean a much more “liberal” bill.   Thus the GOP strategy would have the net effect of creating a kind of emotional sense of satisfaction at having ‘fought the good fight’ and not compromised, while assuring the passage of and perhaps long term survival of a bill they would hate.

Olympia Snowe’s strategy of voting yes and working with the Democrats changes all that.  First, the President wants to have her on board, and prefers a moderate practical bill to the one a “one vote to pass” majority would provide.  Knowing that, Snowe has been able to push for changes modifying the bill in a way more friendly to conservative interests.  She also has emboldened the Senate and House moderate Democrats who also are skeptical of major health care reform.   Her actions assure that the bill likely to pass will be one far more palatable to conservatives than would be the case if she held the party line.   She’s making a real difference in legislation.

Beyond that, she also intensifies the intra-party rivalry within the Democratic party.  She gives cover and support to Senate and House moderates, who now see the chance to get a bill they can more easily defend in the next election cycle.    Certainly these battles would be fought if reconciliation is used, but Snowe helps the smaller, conservative wing of the Democratic party, and keeps Obama on their side — so long as they don’t undercut reform completely.

Thus: Snowe makes things more difficult for the Democrats, and makes it more likely that any bill that passes and becomes law will take into account conservative concerns.   She’s doing what a legislator should do — understanding that politics is the ‘art of the possible’ and working to make sure that she gets what she considers the best possible outcome.  She is playing this role shrewdly and effectively.   She is doing what an opposition party should do in a circumstance like this.

This irks liberal Democrats who wonder why Obama doesn’t just push to get a far more liberal bill, and why he feels a need to lure Snowe over to his side.   To them, Obama is governing not on principle, but on a weak desire to find the middle and not get anyone too upset.  They want Obama to fight and push the liberal agenda boldly forward.   Obama, ironically, may share a lot of their views on the best end result, but he’s also playing the “politics as the art of the possible” game.

The President recognizes that if he is to govern eight years, he can’t assume he’ll have 60 Senators and a House majority of near 80 the whole time.  He’s setting up positive working relationships with Snowe and moderate Democrats, and showing an ability to compromise.  They will be there when he needs their votes moving forward on other matters.  Moreover, a strongly supported health care bill is more likely to survive than one pushed through on a razor thin margin, and getting anything in place is a first step towards more reforms in the future.  It’s easier to alter an existing system than to create a new one.

Meanwhile, the Republicans remain too much in the grip of the ideologues who imagine themselves far stronger and more popular than they are, buoyed by “tea parties” that were attended by the faithful and made the news in August, a slow news month anyway.   The “power” they have is illusionary.   Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck tried to rally their listeners against John McCain in the GOP primary, and failed to have even a minor impact.  The Republican leadership has misread activist unrest as a popular uprising, and thus is pursuing a strategy that may lead to real failure in 2010 and especially 2012.    As I noted awhile back, their reaction to Obama is much like the left’s reaction to Reagan in the early eighties.  It seemed to work at first, but then failed completely.

The GOP has to recognize that the true effective Republican in this case is Senator Snowe.  She’s not giving in to cheap emotions fanned by talk radio jocks or partisans who treat politics like a team sport.   She’s practically trying to solve problems and create compromises that limit what the majority does.  She’s got far more power over the outcome than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.  In fact, she may be the most powerful Senator right now.

What irony — the most powerful Republican, and the one doing the most to limit the scope of liberal change from the Obama administration and a Congress with huge Democratic majorities, is being pilloried, insulted and maligned by many in her own party.  Yet don’t expect her to change parties or give in to pressure.   She certainly won’t lose any elections here in Maine.   Most Republicans, Democrats and Independents are proud of the fact that at least Maine’s Senators inject some New England pragmatism into a process too defined by ideology and partisan games.


Autumn in Paradise

Last spring I took some photos of the trails near our house and promised more later in the year.   Today was a beautiful autumn day, so we took a stroll from our backyard into the woods.   Yesterday I was talking to a friend’s mom who lives in Florida, and she said that Rangeley, Maine was listed in their local paper as one of the top five places in the country for leaf peeping.   We were just there on Saturday doing just that, but really, our backyard is just as good.

First, here’s a couple photos of our back yard play area — built this year thanks to Uncle Sasha — for the boys (oh, and if you click that last link, rest assured that all the piles of loam, rock and sand have been used, grass is growing, and you wouldn’t even know we had the massive drainage project):

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You can see the swings, the play house, the benches in the back are for the fire pit, and the teeter tooter is there.  The sandboxes aren’t visible here, they are on the other side of the swings.   We’re having a big Halloween party here, and plan to have our “haunted woods” prepared.   Here’s a close up of the house, you can see that a yellow slide comes out the other side so the kids can exit in style:

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The boys having run

The boys having fun

And now, some pictures of autumn, a bit past peak, from the trails leading from our backyard:

Wilson stream from the path

Wilson stream from the path

Dana on the path of fallen leaves

Dana on the path of fallen leaves

These trails go on for miles

These trails go on for miles

A short rest

After a short rest, back to the hike!

Some foilage on the hill across the way

Some foilage on the hill across the way

Autumn is definitely my favorite season, and we’ve had mostly perfect weather since September.   Time to take a break from all the stuff going on in the world and simply enjoy nature.


Afghanistan: Mission Impossible

Barack Obama, if all reports are accurate, is on the verge of making a tremendous mistake, and risks showing a lack of leadership.   The media reports suggest that he is neither going to increase troop strength in Afghanistan as Gen. McChrystal requests, nor is he going to radically redefine the mission as simply going after al qaeda and thereby leaving Afghanistan primarily to the Afghans.  Instead, it appears he’s opting for the status quo, which would be the worst of all worlds.   I hope these media reports are wrong.

To be sure, I’m not among those who are too critical of Obama so far.   He’s had to deal with major crises as the US in very poor shape both internally and abroad.  He’s been mercilessly attacked from the Right, which wants to personally destroy him and his Presidency, and sharply criticized from the Left, who wants him to move more aggressively to implement a liberal agenda.  The President has been methodical and true to his claim to be someone who tries to build consensus and bring people together.   And despite a slow pace, he seems to be making progress on his agenda.

One risk a new President faces in foreign policy is to approach it like a domestic issue — listen to various advisers, and then put together some kind of compromise nearly everyone can live with.   Perhaps that can work with health care, but in foreign policy the middle ground is often the road to nowhere.

Yes, listen to the various advisers and experts, but ultimately the President has to choose the path most likely to succeed, using his best judgment, even if it means disagreeing with his cabinet members, the General in the field, or people in his own party.    In the case of Afghanistan I believe he has to risk angering the foreign party establishment in Washington and suffering an angry backlash from the Right.   He should decide to end the effort to democratize and stabilize Afghanistan.   Instead, he should either pull out the troops completely, or redefine their role as a narrow focus on al qaeda, shifting away from counter insurgency towards having the military integrated into a larger scope counter terrorism policy.  That larger policy should not be primarily a military policy, but one with many dimensions.

The reason is simple:  trying to bring stability and security to Afghanistan is mission impossible.   Especially in a time of economic decline and with a military overstretched and exhausted, the conflict risks being a sinkhole sucking in the lives of American soldiers with no chance to some kind of successful conclusion or victory.

I know the counter arguments.   Afghanistan was relatively stable until the early seventies, and many people believe that if we only had spent more time and money there in the early nineties, the rise of the Taliban (which was created and put in place by the Pakistani ISI) might have been avoided.   Now we need to avoid repeating the mistake, lest Afghanistan again become a haven for terrorism and a threat to US security.

There are two problems with that argument.  First, it’s not an argument for continuing at current troop levels in a mission that so far is failing miserably.   If one is really convinced that either out of moral responsibility or concern for our security we need to do all we can to stabilize Afghanistan, then it must become a national priority with a massively increased US presence and involvement.

However, I believe that would be a mistake.   Afghanistan, as all know, has a reputation as being the killer of empires.  Given the growing weakness of the US on the world stage, we need to be vary leery of being sucked into a conflict that will continue to erode our political, military, and economic strength.   Ask the Soviets, the British, Alexander the Great, the Persians, and Genghis Khan!   Yet foreign policy isn’t made based on historical slogans either.  This is the 21st century, and the realities are much different now than in the past.

The problem is that military power has never been able to shape and mold political cultures.  That was the failure in Vietnam, that’s the continuing failure in Iraq, and that’s why Afghanistan went from seeming to be an overwhelming victory in 2001 to becoming viewed as a massive failure in 2009.    That inability to create democracy and stability without a political culture able to support it is standard fare in Political Science courses.   It comes up against the myth that Americans have that democracy is natural and easy to make work if only the authoritarians would let it.  Democracy is hard to implement and maintain, and it requires a culture tolerating opposition, governed by rule of law, with accountability of the government to the people, and in general an acceptance of compromise and cooperation between different groups.   Most countries that try democracy have it fail a number of times before it sticks.   In the US it was built very slowly, with slavery for 80 years, and women being denied the vote for 140 years.   A radical shift to stable democracy is impossible for most states, especially those with fragmented political cultures full of corruption  like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before the war, hawks liked to point to Germany and Japan after WWII as proof democracy can be imposed.  But each country had strong democratic movements, each had tried democracy before, each was an advanced industrial state with a well educated population, and each had a strong sense of tradition and national unity.  Most importantly, each had a large middle class that wanted economic success and was willing to work with the US and others.   Those two countries were unique, and certainly not models for states like Iraq and Afghanistan.

If President Obama does not take bold action to dramatically alter the mission in Afghanistan, cut down the number of troops there, and redefine the military’s role as being to support counter-terrorist operations focused on Al Qaeda, not only will the US not be able to achieve its goals, but Obama’s very Presidency could be at risk.  The advice from Washington foreign policy insiders is often like the advice from financial market analysts before 2008: wishful thinking based on assumptions from the past in a world fundamentally altered.   The idea that somehow the US can “fix” Afghanistan is a fatally flawed idea.   President Obama should not flinch from having to end that operation and take whatever heat he gets.


Missing Minnesota

I was born at St. Barnabas hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, though my parents lived in the suburb of Bloomington at the time.  A year later Bloomington also became host to the Minnesota Twins, who moved to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul from Washington (they had been the Washington Senators), and the NFL expansion franchise, the Minnesota Vikings.  Now their original stadium is gone, replaced by the huge Mall of America complex with nearly 500 stores and an amusement park in the center.

By age 2 my family had moved to South Dakota, first to Rapid City and then Sioux Falls where I grew up, went to school (Mark Twain Elementary, Patrick Henry Jr. High, and Lincoln Sr. High) and College (Augustana).  Yet I was a dedicated Twins and Vikings fan all through, having a strong allegiance to my birth state.

In 1985, after living awhile in Bologna, Italy and Washington DC, I made it finally to the twin cities, working a year as a night manager at a Rocky Rococo’s pizza before starting the Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota.  I would live there a decade before moving out to Maine.   Life in Maine is wonderful.   We have some of the most beautiful scenery, and right now as the leaves are at peak there is no place more beautiful than a drive through the Maine countryside.  Raising kids here is superb, and I often think that I live in paradise, I can imagine no better life than here in Maine.

But sometimes, nostalgia strikes.   Yesterday I watched the Minnesota Vikings defeat the Green Bay Packers 30-23 in a game full of excitement.   When I lived in Minnesota my dad had season tickets to the Vikings.  He would drive four and  a half hours up from Sioux Falls for every home game, and then drive back.   I would accompany him to four or five games a year, and sometimes a playoff game.    The last game I watched with him, on September 25, 1994, was a thriller as the Vikings came back to beat Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins 38-35 in one of the most memorable games I’ve seen.  I also remember being amazed at Dan Marino live — the ball really did seem to move faster and with more authority than almost all other quarterbacks I’d seen.

The next week my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.   He died in late March the next year.  I gave the eulogy at his funeral the day before flying to Maine for my job interview here.  I told no one at the university that my dad had just died, that would have made the interview, well, really awkward.  Instead, I felt my dad was with me.

I have numerous memories of the Vikings.  In college I came home every Sunday to watch the Vikes with my dad on TV.  Once we saw Ahmad Rashad catch a last minute touchdown pass to defeat Cleveland.   We lept up from our chairs to cheer.   My mom, outside bringing in groceries from the store, dropped the groceries and ran in.  She saw the jumping and thought my dad was having a heart attack.   My dad received a gift from the Vikings too after he got sick — a letter, and a Vikings cap signed by Warren Moon.

So last night as I watched Monday Night Football, with the Minneapolis skyline shown at times, and the familar stands and excitement, I was transported to the early 90s and the energy I remember from those games.    My dad would usually spend the night if he came for a Monday night game (one time he didn’t, and told me how he was so tired he had to open the car windows in subfreezing temps and sing along with Christmas Carols on his tape deck to keep from falling asleep).   The magic was real, for the first time in a long time I felt I was away from my home.

As I kid I would follow the Minnesota Twins all season long, keeping stats, charts of the scores of each game, pulling for Rod Carew to bat 400, and watching as my hapless Twins struggled through the 70s.  I saw a few live games (my dad took me to a double header against the A’s in 1973 — Jim Kaat pitching, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Olivia still playing…the Twins swept the mighty A’s that day too!)   Then, while I lived in Minnesota, the Twins won the 1987 World Series.  It was a euphoric celebration and season.  Gaetti, Hrbek, Brunansky, Gladden, Viola…finally a World Series victory!

Then in 1991 I was lucky to be away in Germany while the Twins won one of the most exciting world series in history, defeating the Atlanta Braves 4 games to 3, in some close and exciting contests, culminating in one of the best individual performances by any athlete, Jack Morris defeating the Braves in a ten inning 1-0 shutout in game seven.  I was lucky to be in Germany because it forced me to listen to the game on the radio.  The Vin Scully-Johnny Bench broadcast was what baseball should be — if one can’t be there live, the drama of radio coverage by top notch announcers can’t be beat.  I stayed up until nearly 6:00 AM in Berlin to listen to the last game on Armed Forces Radio.   It was amazing.

So Tuesday night I was thrilled to watch another amazing Metrodome game, as the Twins defeated Detroit 6-5 in the one game playoff with Detroit to go to the post-season.   The Twins were behind by 7 games in mid-September, and by three games when there were only four left to play.   They won the last 17 of 21 to be in this position.  54,088 fans were at the Dome, and as they cheered after the game and the Twins took their victory lap, I felt like I really should be there, not here.  My Twins winning such a thrilling game, heading on to the playoffs!  As I saw Ron Gardenhire, the Twins Manager, cooly survey the scene, I was reminded of Tom Kelly, who was manager when I lived there (and whose one career homerun in 1975 I have on tape —  I think Larry Calton making the call).   I have been a Twins fan for as long as I can remember.  Oh to be back in Minnesota!

Alas, the much maligned Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where I saw so many Twins and Vikings games, is losing the Twins after this year.  They are moving to a new stadium (the Gophers have moved as well, though at this point the Vikings will stay).   I remember going there back in 1982 and seeing a young Frank Viola pitch in the first year of the dome.  They didn’t have air conditioning because the architect didn’t think they’d need it, and it was sweltering hot — that was changed the next year!

I don’t follow sports much any more.   My teams are still the Vikings and the Twins, but they’re so far away that I’ve become a very infrequent viewer of sporting events.  But the last two nights brought back a lot of memories, I felt as much joy in the Twins win as I did back in 1987 or 1991.

No, I don’t want to move back there from Maine.  As much as I love the Twin Cities, Maine is my home, and I love it here.  Still, the last two days I’ve connected with my past through sporting events.  The Twins, the Vikings, my dad, listening to the radio world series (ESPN claims the 1991 series is the best ever) in Berlin, watching games at the old Met in Bloomington…  Nostalgia can be fun — especially if your team wins!