What You Should Think About Health Care

September 21, 2009

“Expensive medicines are always good:  if not for the patient, at least for the druggist.”

–Russian proverb

I recall, as a libertarian-minded youngster, becoming upset that media coverage of reforms advocated by Bill and Hillary Clinton referred to “the American health care system.”  I noted a fact as true today as it was then — this nation does not have a systematic approach to health care provision.  It bothered me to think that the implication of a “system” was misleading people into believing there was some sort of problem in need of a solution.

Today I remain concerned about use of the phrase “health care system.”  As a grown man with knowledge of the world that books alone cannot convey, I understand the grotesque inhumanity of American policy as relates to the provision of medical services.  It is a real and grave problem, a problem every other prosperous civilized nation has already solved within its own borders.  Arguments about the precise number of uninsured citizens only distract from the reality that tens of millions of Americans have no practical alternative to emergency medical services.

For some, this means sicknesses and injuries are only addressed in moments of desperation, with inefficient use of precious resources.  For some, this means sicknesses and injuries are endured despite protracted or even lifelong suffering.  According to [warning: PDF link] a recent Harvard study, for around 45,000 people each year, this leads to death.  Effective universal health care policy could save as many American lives as preventing one 9/11-magnitude attack every forty days!

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Republican party leaders with the leaders of Al Qaeda.  Yet the scope of preventable deaths brought about by human choices begs the question — to whom is that comparison unfair?  Are working class families caught in the gap between Medicaid and affluence somehow less innocent than the final occupants of the World Trade Center?  If expense is the real issue, why does solving the much more deadly problem of health care access warrant so much less support than the problem of terrorist attacks?

At a disturbing nexus of ignorance and irony, proponents of universal health care have been cast as villains who pose a threat to the American way of life.  That ignorance stems from some notion that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to see to the general welfare of the American people.  Never mind that the Article 1, Section 8 explicitly provides Congress with that power.  Never mind that the very first sentence of the Constitution articulates that duty as one fundamental purpose of our government.  As with so many other areas of debate, many critics of reform are unwilling to be swayed by even the most obvious facts.

If there has been any betrayal of the American way of life, it has been the institutionalization of political dogma holding that government action impedes private sector solutions.  While political leaders in the opposition party have either failed inexcusably in their duty to be informed or deliberately shirked their duty to serve the public interest, their followers are typically less villainous.  A month or so ago, one well-meaning and apparently patriotic woman shouted out that “the good hearts of the people” should be given a chance to address this problem.

As long as the problem has existed, public goodwill has had unfettered opportunity to provide relief to the sick and downtrodden.  In the early 1990s, it was already clear that philanthropy was inadequate.  In spite of enormous tax breaks for wealthy Americans in the interim, our nation has only seen more and more of our citizens uninsured or underinsured.  The notion that government cannot play a constructive role is repudiated not only by dozens upon dozens of foreign realities, but also by our own increasingly bleak public health reality.

Yet narrow interests remain zealously defended.  Some say that universal access to health care would somehow inhibit the development of new drugs and other medical technologies.  Does our nation lose nothing greater from tens of thousands of deaths (not to mention uncounted lost hours of productivity) brought about by inadequately treated medical conditions?  If medical innovation really suffers somehow from the provision of universal access, how much blood must be spilled in its name?

Yet even that is a false dichotomy.  Several European nations are each home to large thriving medical research enterprises.  Heck, even Cuba, in spite of scant national resources, manages to develop lifesaving new drugs at an impressive pace.  The idea that America, with so much raw wealth and so much intellectual capital, cannot meet the needs of its own people and still outshine the inventiveness of those other nations is a very strange assertion for a self-identified patriot to voice.

If there is any valid criticism of reformers, it would be about their widespread willingness to compromise with a political movement utterly at odds with facts.  In months of high profile public debate, few voices have been raised to ask just what profit-based health insurance actually accomplishes.  In effect, these institutions serve as private sector death panels. Somehow that term has instead achieved cultural resonance based on the fictitious and absurd rationing no public official has ever proposed to end the lives of Americans no one wishes to see dead.

Certainly there are times and places where compromise is in order.  When good faith efforts to get at the facts yield inconclusive results, bold action may be unwise.  Regarding the state of American health care today, it is only efforts made in bad faith that prevent widespread clarity about a national body count caused by a cutthroat economic paradigm applied to health care policy (not to mention monumental losses to productivity suffered by survivors of that same blight.)

Perversely, even as national media outlets are assault by propagandists, they continue to indulge purveyors of misinformation.  Again and again, transparent lies and the unrepentant dissemblers behind them are put on equal footing with provable facts and earnest informed advocates.  As with the disastrous plunge into Iraq, this critical political decision is being shaped by dialogues that equate major league national scoundrels with genuinely wise national leaders.  Yet whatever wisdom exists to promote reform, it seems unable to bring our nation anywhere near the kind of sweeping overhaul that would bring great benefit to each and every other enterprise by way of marginalizing a single parasitic industry.

Neither conservative nor libertarian thinking is without wisdom of its own.  This wisdom becomes folly when it relies on misinformation and hostile emotion.  Every day, more of our own citizens die because this particular folly continues without remedy.  If a few thousand Americans dying in 2001 justify enormous changes to our way of life, on what basis does anyone reject less dramatic change in to prevent the deaths of so many more innocent citizens?

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What You Should Think About Confidence

October 11, 2008

“Once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

–Abraham Lincoln

The leading voices in 21st century political misinformation display command of sophisticated techniques.  Yet, from Wall Street to the White House, there has long been a fundamental disregard for basic truths.  By this I do not refer to specific falsehoods in the misinformation. Instead I see the strategy of popularizing ideas through misinformation as deeply unsound.  On one level, policies propped up by bogus argument risk redefinition in terms of those bogus arguments.  On another, misinformation campaigns tend to generate backlash that increases dramatically over time.

Manipulators forget that ideas good in theory may still fail in practice since propping up talking points may sap energy away from potentially real accomplishments.  Manipulators also forget that ideas that are not even good in theory cannot find enduring support in an open society with access to good information.  Spin atop spin may work to motivate frenzied extremists, but it only alienates thinkers anchored in reality.  Yet the more moderate citizens see something screwy in the rhetoric of a national leader, the less confidence they will have in all of that leaders arguments and initiatives.

Contrast Operation Desert Storm with Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The 1991 war was waged in the context of a defensible idea.  George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” while leading an enormous coalition to drive an invading army from Kuwait.  Even so, legitimate appeals were bolstered by propaganda.  Madison Avenue experts crafted heartwrenching tales of premature Kuwaiti infants wrenched from lifesaving incubators.  Stories of alleged atrocities taking place inside Kuwait passed completely unfiltered from dubious sources to evening newscasts.  Yet over any time frame, the backlash generated by these deceptions was minimal.

This was because the war propaganda of the time never stole center stage from the real story.  The integrity of national borders, the essence of geopolitical stability, was at stake.  Thus there is all the more irony in the fact that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was chiefly justified by an argument for pre-emptive defense. The very stability at the heart of Bush the Elder’s greatest achievement was cast aside in favor of a new paradigm that allowed violent aggression to be justified by nothing more than a fearful state of mind.  Fanatics doing the bidding of Osama bin Laden gave this century an uncertain start. George W. Bush insured it would remain an uncertain time for many years to come.

During the decade that international efforts did so much to contain and extinguish military aggression, times were generally good.  Radicals and fundamentalists engaged in their share of disruptive activities, but cooler heads prevailed anywhere public scrutiny was influential.  World leaders were generally inclined to solve problems and raise confidence.  A culture of responsibility heavily discouraged generating new troubles and raising public fears.  That culture failed the people of the United States so far this century.

The same failure is evident beyond the realm of politics.  For years Wall Street thrived on a potent blend of false narratives.  Loose credit inflated housing prices beyond reason, which in turn justified continuity in the practices associated with the phrase “loose credit.”  Corporations achieved great profits by relocating production abroad, yet years of unconditional support for free trade meant trading those short term gains for sustainable progress a more robust industrial sector could provide.  The house of cards so freshly tumbled has been unsound for a decade or more, yet when is the first time serious critics were given serious public attention?

No serious participants in American public dialog want to see further ruin befall our national economy.  No serious participants in American public dialog want the nation to succumb to foreign invaders.  Yet many very serious, and very vocal, participants in American public dialog prey upon gullibility and fear, demonizing ideas and people alike.  Having clutched so long at wickedly false narratives, they are reduced to arguing that disagreement with their agenda is the equivalent of disloyalty to the nation as a whole.

How did we get here?  Fearmongers and hatemongers have always been a fixture in public life.  Even in the happiest and most peaceful of times, some people will be disaffected and others demented.  Their ravings are more likely to strike a popular chord when fear or anger come to dominate the national mood.  They are also more likely to gain influence when a vacuum is created by a lack of worthwhile ideas serving a large constituency.  The result has a major party’s rank and file lobbing firebombs like “murderer” and “terrorist” at a sitting U.S. Senator lacking anything like a meaningful connection to any violence against Americans.

There is a certain crazy logic to it all.  Amongst the extremist rhetoric is a disturbingly popular notion that, because taxation carries with it the force of law, simply having a publicly funded government is an unbearable imposition of violence.  It is a view that comes from no place in reality.  It is a view that has no place in realistic dialog.  Yet it has a prominent place in the echo chambers of the American political right wing.  In recent months, it is at the place that the most fervent opponents of political liberalism have jumped the rails altogether.  Without sensible arguments and strong leaders to guide them, a web of conservative political movements resort to raw sound and fury.

The tension all this creates is not worse than simply going submitting to cutthroat agenda.  Yet the tension need not have been allowed to fester so in the first place.  If conservative political operatives and Republican partisans had not rejected so many mainstream ideas and institutions, the lines of communications would have been much healthier.  It is hard to overstate the extent of the prices paid for their failure.

Take the example of interest rates.  No doubt in the past seven years there have been some strong arguments for action by the Federal Reserve to lower rates.  Yet the history of rate cuts suggests even the weakest of those arguments was embraced while contrary views simply went unheard.  An inclusive process accommodating differences of opinion would have been much less likely to stray into an extremist rut.  Had rates been cut more slowly (or even raised from time to time) during the past eight years, the present crisis could have been softened (or even averted) by bold cuts in response to the earliest major events related to tightening credit.

This is just one of many truly horrible situations that was shaped in part by a bunker mentality hostile to mainstream ideas.  It may be fair to argue that voices of protest against the latest war in Iraq were outside the mainstream in 2003.  It certainly is fair to note that there was vocal mainstream concern when Saddam Hussein had been captured and American officials refused to consider subsequent demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy.  Some good ideas implemented recently were rejected in the past while others (including taking the U.S. Armed Forces out of the lead in facilitating Iraq’s political progress) have yet to receive serious consideration by executive leaders.

From climate change to fiscal restraint to fair trade, a host of critical issues have been addressed (or not) by the whims of individuals deaf to even the most insightful and constructive of their critics.  Entangled with this problem of insular thinking is the problem of public confidence.  Ignoring sound critiques while endlessly echoing a mix of talking points crafted with little regard for verifiable facts will tend to make observers uneasy in direct proportion to how astute those observers are.  This drives off the most honorable supporters of an agenda or organization while leaving the remainder increasingly frustrated and confused.

Over the long term, gains accomplished by campaigns of misinformation give way to growing doubt and distrust among the misinformed.  That lost trust is of immense value in instances when it is desirable that the nation should rally behind a common cause.  Public opinion of a prominent leader has long been a more useful asset than any weapons system or banking institution.  Whatever struggles await the American people in the future, it is true that public confidence may light the way toward better outcomes.  Yet the way toward better public confidence is itself only clear when lit by truthful dialog about those future struggles.


What You Should Think About Being Cool

October 6, 2008

“It is only after time has been given for a cool and deliberate reflection that the real voice of the people can be known.”

–George Washington

On the eve of 2008’s second U.S. Presidential debate, I am inclined to reflect on one of the more interesting statements from the first.  Senator Barack Obama observed, “part of my job, I think, as President, is to make government cool again.”  In that regard, the candidate faces an uphill battle.  For thirty years, whatever efforts were made to get positive results from trickle-down economics have been exceeded by efforts to rally popular support for an ideology that characterizes government itself as “part of the problem.”

Millions of American voters consider themselves informed because of fantasies spun from the hot air of passionate extremism.  Rather than recognize the limited technical parameters within which a tax cut is likely to promote growth, their dogma transmutes any tax cut proposal into a surefire remedy for the economic troubles of the day.  Rather than recognize the legitimately constructive role new programs could play in promoting progress, their dogma demands nothing but venom for any economic act the state may take to promote the general welfare.

There is a legitimate difference of opinion about the effectiveness of campaigns to popularize this anarcho-capitalist ideology.  Dissent persists.  Heretical suggestions of imperfection in free markets are increasingly allowed to escape into mainstream media content.  Sadly, to hoodwinked legions, any media not fully co-opted by the ideology of free market fundamentalism is to be dismissed by charges of bias . . . along whatever pesky facts they might happen to uncover.

This preference for reducing politics to a level approaching infantile, regurgitating the false narratives and avoiding absorption of real information, is grossly irresponsible.  It is only natural that someone of a patriotic mindset would feel animosity toward organizations and individuals promoting and acting on these false narratives.  Yet, like the central theory of trickle-down economics, the idea that it is right to fight fire with fire is nice, neat, simple, and generally wrong.

Having the right idea does not bestow the loudest voice.  Perhaps more crucially, having the loudest voice is no assurance that it will sound out the right ideas.  Americans of all political orientations have contributed energy to noise machines.  Yet in this century, it is unmistakable that the substantive discourse of conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. and Peggy Noonan has been replaced by the deceitful manipulations of conservatives like Karl Rove and David Frum.  The leadership of the party in power lacks ability or the willingness to distance itself from blatant scoundrels and laughable incompetents.

The tenor of Senator John McCain’s campaign makes this unmistakable.  At a time when both global and national economies are in severe turmoil, that organization opted to let today’s campaign efforts be dominated by personal attacks and sleazy innuendo.  With a little less than their usual levels of restraint and discipline, Senator Obama’s campaign responded in kind.  On the eve of a historic debate, both candidates have positioned themselves in a gutter where slander and trickery marginalize any role underlying realities may play.

A “fight fire with fire” mentality only insures that a clash will be heated.  In the ideal, a fire may also shed some light.  Given the nature of politics, such heated appeals more often wind up obscuring important realities with smoke.  Alas, there is also a perception issue here.  Credible analysis holds that John Kerry’s “above the fray” approach to slander and personal attacks in the 2004 campaign lost him some votes.  A sufficient amount of dirty fighting from one campaign demands a measure of it from the other to avoid a popular perception of weakness (however misguided that perception may be.)

Yet the grave danger exists, as has long been the case with U.S.-Iraq policy, that saving face and perpetuating false narratives will take priority over making changes and popularizing accurate narratives.  Early in his primary bid, Senator Obama called for “a new kind of politics.”  Even granting that this call may have fallen on deaf ears across the Senate aisle, it should not be abandoned.  For cooler heads to prevail, that which is most vulgar and primal about our politics must not be legitimized.

Perhaps nothing truly defines 21st century American politics better than the desperate need for cooler heads to prevail.  Twenty men with boxcutters attacked this nation over seven years ago.  Because of what twenty men with boxcutters did on a single morning, “everything changed.”  In the absence of cool rational thought, that sort of rhetorical absolutism enjoys popular resonance.  In the absence of cool rational thought, extremist policies may steamroll right over otherwise effective checks and balances.

Twenty men with boxcutters were the most effective terrorists in the history of terrorism.  They were provided unwitting yet essential support by the sitting President, his speechwriters, his advisors, and many lesser officials in the executive branch.  The United States of America was under threat by a criminal network with a demonstrated capability to deploy conventional bombs and knife-wielding fanatics.  The group did benefit from private Saudi financial support and sanctuary in the Taliban-controlled portions of Afghanistan.  Yet its single greatest asset was a U.S. Presidency eager to elevate these scum from a ragtag band of misanthropic cave dwellers into an overwhelming threat to the American way of life.

Shocked, saddened, and infuriated by a real national tragedy (and an emotional impact amplified through the manic properties of contemporary media,) our citizenry was in no position to insure that cooler heads would prevail.  Rather than show real leadership by rising to the occasion, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their associates willfully exploited the situation to advance such barbaric policies as the pre-emptive defense, enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and the unitary executive.  All cloaked in clinical doublespeak, each one of them does more to undermine American liberty than any British tax act ever did.

It is right that people should be upset by all this.  It is right that people should be upset that there is precious little in the way of substantive discourse emergent from American political conservatives.  Perhaps at some rallies and special events, it is not entirely wrong to allow some of that negative emotion to be vented.  Yet it is certainly wrong to ever let it displace calm cool rationality or cold hard facts.

To the degree that conservatives do express their views with support from earnest analysis and accurate information, that deserves responses supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  Even when conservatives support their views with only hotheaded bluster and misleading noise, responses should still be solidly supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  When it comes to political clash, perhaps the best approach to fighting fire is not with fire, but rather with ice (or at least a simple wet blanket.)

If our national leadership ever is to benefit from cooler heads in action, then advocates in possession of rational perspectives must step up with the dignity and poise required to actually be cool.  If Presidential politics is to cease being a venue for mongers of fear and hate, it must become a stage for the projection of confidence and hope.

It is long past time for the demonization of the entire public sector to give way to a rational national debate about the role of government in American life.  Our government is not based on inscribed tablets distributed by a burning bush.  Our government is not shaped by manuals sent here from some higher intelligence.  It is now, and always has been, shaped by the words of American patriots.  In pursuit of the goal to make government cool again, there can be no finer start than to be cool whenever engaging in civic discourse.


What You Should Think About the United Nations

November 17, 2007

“Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties more anxious to agree than to disagree.”

–Dean Acheson

There is a certain segment of the American public afflicted with strong negative feelings regarding the United Nations. Certainly it is not a perfect institution. Yet when one looks at its purpose and the context in which it operates, blanket hatred of the UN seems like a downright bizarre attitude to adopt. In fact, the general public of the United States sees the UN as a positive force bound by duty to do good in the world.

Yet there is a portion of the public as sure to feel their hearts race with hostility on hearing the phrase “United Nations” as Pavlov’s dogs would be to slobber at a particular light cue. In this case the conditioning is not a matter of being fed in conjunction with the cue. Rather the response in stimulated by the perverse satisfaction of embracing a bogus political orthodoxy. The organization had yet to spend a full decade in its present headquarters when a downright nutty group started rabble-rousing to promote American withdrawal from the strongest global organization dedicated to peaceful international relations.

A free society certainly can accommodate small numbers of survivalist storytellers dedicated to the hobbies of hoarding supplies and sitting around campfires swapping tales of big guvment’s evils. Alas, extremes of personal irresponsibility amongst media tycoons and people emulating journalists elevated the narratives of this fringe to a level where they influence the thinking of millions of American citizens. “Alas,” is an appropriate sentiment here, because a large number of those so misinformed are inclined to vote.

This is particularly problematic when the nation is divided over some sort of military misadventure. The domino theory was ridiculous on its face. If you see the United States as a society that honors traditions of personal liberty and will not yield to foreign oppression, then you have a solid basis for understanding that events in Viet Nam did not pose a real threat to American national security. Yet the sense of that threat motivated all manner of people to justify violence so extreme and remote. By word and deed they seemed unaware of just how much less fragile our nation actually is than such fears imply.

Today we also hear strains of, “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Come to think of it, we hear precisely that language today. To be fair, Al Qaeda has actually attacked Americans on American soil. On the other hand, Al Qaeda was a ragtag militia of unpopular extremists in 2000. By October of 2001, they had become one of the most despised organizations on Earth. Little by little, their reputation in certain parts of the world has risen. More precipitously, the reputation of the United States government has fallen in many of those same parts of the world.

There are many aspects to study in this phenomenon. One crucial facet involves understanding American thinking regarding the United Nations. When it came time to take action against Afghanistan, there was hardly an unsupportive voice in the room. Whatever delegation might have represented the outgoing regime in Afghanistan, the General Assembly did nothing to protest what the world saw as a legitimate action taken by the United States in the aftermath of a surprise attack. By December of 2001, the UN had already put together a plan and made significant contributions in multiple areas of promoting stability in occupied Afghanistan.

All seemed well with U.S.-UN relations up until the foundations were being laid for the attack on Iraq. It would not be long before the quest for international validation would give way to an effort to invalidate the voices of old allies, never mind the United Nations itself. It began with some foot-dragging on weapons inspections. Aside from a scrap of paper in some obscure German intelligence file and obvious misinformation provided by an Iraqi defector notorious for his eagerness to provide his handlers with sensational information, no reason existed to believe Saddam Hussein was on the verge of creating any mushroom clouds.

In fairness, there was a time when Saddam Hussein had pursued some exotic weapons programs. So long as he deployed them against Iranian targets, the United States was not shy about supporting the tyrant’s use of chemical weapons. It was a fact that he tried to build a ridiculously large artillery piece, and he had long been fascinated with powerful weapons. Yet it was also a fact that he had a narcissistic personality coupled with a significant amount of real political savvy. He may have valued firepower, but one thing he valued orders of magnitude more was his own neck.

The long and bloody process of slipping a noose around that neck faced derailment when military deployments by the U.S. convinced Hussein to give UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to the whole of Iraq. With trained professionals snooping in all the right places (not to mention U.S. satellites tracking every suspicious movement along with a large amount of ordinary traffic in Iraq) it was only a matter of time before the truth got out. As it happened, the truth was that Iraq was not wasting scarce resources on counterproductive efforts to break the UN-imposed ban on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Some have argued that White House officials were so bereft of geopolitical acumen that they truly believed Saddam Hussein was supporting forbidden weapons programs. Doubt may be cast on this view by the speed and ferocity of the media campaign to discredit the United Nations. From the most predictable of cheap shots (“doesn’t Hans Blix look a lot like Mr. Magoo?”) to sweeping slander positioned neatly over kernels of truth (“doesn’t corruption in the Oil for Food Programme create a conflict of interest?”) these efforts were a veritable symphony of that dark art practiced by Messrs. Ailes and Rove.

French fries became “freedom fries” for a time, and eventually our nation would extend a much bigger middle finger to the international community by appointing John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. In doing so our leaders (and their supporters) display a grasp of friendship just as warped as their grasp of prewar Iraq. Today some of these same Americans so hostile to the United Nations go so far as to say out loud, “if only someone was around to tell us this war was a bad idea before we got into it.” Adding a lousy grip on recent history to other tenuous grasps, they fail to recognize that traditional allies speaking out against The Coalition of the Willing were concerned friends willing to brave unmistakable pettiness from American political leaders in order to do what good friends do — offer words of warning to dissuade the pursuit of an obviously disastrous plan.

Yet pursue that plan is precisely what our nation did. Now that the United Nations is pulling climate change to the top of its own agenda, it is only natural that the same American voices assailing them in the past will do so in the near future. As it happens, the individuals and institutions at the heart of misinformation about the Iraqi threat to national security are also major providers of misinformation about the relationship between industrial emissions and global warming.

Given the choice between remaining devoted to pundits consistently (if not also hysterically) wrong about the great issues of our times or looking elsewhere for guidance, a substantial segment of the American population will stay the course, however wrong it may be. To be sure, the UN is not above all criticism. Yet can inadequate action in Darfur or corruption in prewar Baghdad really justify ignoring the facts about all the tremendous good accomplished by dozens of UN organizations gathering data, distributing humanitarian aid, and working to spread peace across the globe? If you have a passionate commitment to denying humanity’s role in ongoing climate change, ignoring the facts is just one of the side effects of the anger you are likely to feel on hearing or seeing the phrase “United Nations.”


What You Should Think About Doublespeak

November 14, 2007

“Democracies are dependent upon wonderful language.”

–Norman Mailer

Even though I believe they are an enormous negative influence on the course of events in and beyond the borders of the United States, I retain a measure of sympathy for those people who proudly acknowledge being “dittoheads.” For the uninitiated, the term actually refers to a form of admiration for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Because there came a time when the most sycophantic of his callers might gush on through a whole segment with insubstantial flattery, it has become customary for supportive callers to simple say “dittos” as a means of expressing that admiration without eating up a big chunk of airtime.

Yet the term has another resonance as it applies to the core audiences of righteous indignation specialists like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. These individuals could not possibly be sustaining their popularity through insightful analysis of political realities. If they were indeed insightful, then we would be living in a world where Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden kept each other’s private numbers on speed dial, ozone layer depletion was just an environmentalists’ hoax, and high end tax cuts always insure that an economy will grow like gangbusters.

No matter the number or severity of falsehoods passed off as fact or errant predictions passed off as reliable foresight, pundits catering to the dittohead legion retain their popularity. Clearly part of this is similar to what motivates even more despicable movements that thrive on hate. Rather than demonizing a race, a range of ideologies, often bundled together under the “lib-er-al” umbrella, is the target for hostility. Stirring up negative emotions is a sinister and sleazy, yet nonetheless effective, way to engage the interest of some people and build up a sense of community.

Yet I believe there is something more to all that nonsense than merely a bunker mentality and the sense of belonging that comes from sharing some perspective mainstream media consumers “don’t get.” Perhaps, just as a recovering alcoholic has useful insights into the problems of chronic drunkenness, I possess useful insights into the problems of embracing the dittoheads’ worldview. At no point was I absolute and orthodox in this embrace, but I can recall a time when politics seemed to make more sense to me because I gave serious consideration to the arguments proliferating through conservative talk radio.

I believe part of the appeal is analogous to the popularity of pagan faiths in a more primitive time. Given that the world is innately complex, it provided security and personal satisfaction for people to embrace nice neat little stories to explain mysterious natural phenomena. The politics of the modern world is also innately complex. Responsible civic discourse embraces these complexities and does not substitute the easy myth for the difficult study. Yet dittoheads are not at heart intent on responsibility in their civic discourse. Instead it is the security and personal satisfaction of a coherent narrative that keeps them coming back again and again to the same wells of misinformation.

Part of what enables narratives replete with misinformation to remain coherent is the perversion of language. In its best moments, political speech serves to provide clarity. The Declaration of Independence, FDR’s address following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” oratory — these landmark moments in the history of American political discourse were glorious in no small part because they said what they meant and they meant what they said. There is great power in honesty. This is all the more true in arenas where it is uncommon, like American politics.

Yet there is also great power in duplicity. A man who made no secret of outright hostility to social welfare policies, a man who never met a death warrant he didn’t like — that man rose to power wearing the label “compassionate conservative.” There are in fact compassionate conservatives in the world. Yet they earn that moniker through deeds that display genuine compassion. Today simply talking about compassion seems to be enough to persuade a significant portion of the public.

Karl Rove may have about as much governmental savvy as a dented can of succotash, but his understanding of how to deprive political leaders of popularity may be unrivaled in our times. As he worked his black magic in Texas, anyone at all supportive of a homosexual public figure was characterized as “a pawn of the gay agenda.” Likewise, the 2004 Presidential campaign was only the most recent in a series of maneuvers by which he managed to make a combat veteran cited for valor under fire seem like a coward unworthy of the public trust.

George Orwell is perhaps the most well-known of writers to warn of growing disconnects between political speech and political action. Particularly haunting are the parallels between his darkest narratives and the rise of deliberately misleading terminology in our own time. “Homicide bomber” gave me more mirth than fear, since it was a clumsy effort. The intent to kill is already implicit in the term “bomber.” “Suicide bomber” conveys additional meaning by explicitly articulating the fanaticism of murderous terrorists. “Homicide bomber” is just plain redundant.

Yet not all of today’s newspeak is so clumsy or ineffective. Immigration policies offering a reasonable path to normalization of undocumented alien workers are routinely characterized as “amnesty.” How many critics of reform would find a a $5,000 fine amidst a long series of additional hurdles and penalties the same as getting a free pass? Likewise, even as many Democratic politicians cravenly invite parasites from the health insurance industry into their plans for health care reform, these proposals substantially dependent on private enterprise are still branded as “socialist” by critics.

However, the most dangerous in all the bunch is the nonsense word “Islamofascism.” This term seems to have been crafted with the express purpose of perpetuating the American myth that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were partners in crime. As part of the campaign to shoehorn justification for the Iraq war into some sort of coherent national security policy, the public is being deliberately misinformed about the nature of religion and governance throughout the Middle East.

In point of fact, Al Qaeda has long had the goal of dismantling secular regimes in the Middle East. In fact, years before 2001, bin Laden himself declared that it would serve the purposes of his group if the United States could become bogged down in bloody occupations in that region. Given that the Taliban actually did support Al Qaeda and refused to cooperate with counterterrorism efforts, there once was a tiny nexus where authoritarians and radical terrorists were actually in alliance. Yet elsewhere the relationship is uniformly adversarial. Apart from being oil money playboys who turned to fundamentalist religion before taking center stage in world history’s most recent episode of violence, another link between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden is that they both believed strongly that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go.

In the end Islamofascism serves as a way to blunt understanding of the Middle East. Curiously enough, it is never brought to bear on thinking about the Saudi regime, but Iran is a favorite target of its users. In the end it serves to simplify matters so that people can feel as if they’ve adopted a coherent and useful perspective even as they have actually stopped well short of understanding the complexities of the region. By failing to recognize the various antagonistic relationships between terrorist organizations and working governments throughout the Middle East, conservative pundits dumb it all down to a “white hats and black hats” scenario that presents a mix of shaky alliances and outright enemies as if they were all part of one coherent faction with a single agenda. This serves the immediate needs of White House officials, but it undermines the national need to deal with realities in a hotbed of geopolitical chaos.


What You Should Think About Patriotism

October 14, 2007

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.

–J. William Fulbright

Well before terrorists transformed the New York City skyline, America’s loudest political conservatives made no secret of beliefs that their kind had a monopoly on patriotism. With a shocking national trauma came much greater zeal in these assertions of patriotic supremacy. The sense in those claims has always been elusive. On an obvious level, confusing ideological conviction with national loyalty is problematic. Yet there are much more subtle and insidious problems with this phenomenon as well.

A public stirred by strong emotions may be so moved as to accept arguments that it is innately patriotic to agree with national leaders. The powers that be are presumed right without any regard for the particulars of their positions and actions. This creates a situation where no distortion of fact nor abuse of power is subjected to adequate public scrutiny. The greatest virtue, and the greatest strength, of popular rule is discarded in favor of a paradigm that conflates a nation with its present regime.

Clear understanding can come through direct experience. Hermann Göring lived long enough after the fall of the Third Reich to share what understanding could be gleaned from his role in history. During the Nuremburg Trials, psychologist Gustave Gilbert was able to engage the former Luftwaffe chief in extensive frank conversations. In one exchange, Gilbert seemed confident that democracy would prevent any American President from dragging the nation into acts of imperialist aggression. Göring disputed the notion that popular rule could restrain such belligerence, “all you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

At the very least, wars in Viet Nam and Iraq validate that insight from a doomed Nazi aviator. The rationale for waging full scale war in each instance was simply not credible. False narratives crafted by White House media experts generated public support for each misadventure. Deliberately misleading language or even outright lies were not subject to sufficient public scrutiny. Warnings of dire threats from remote corners of the world were at odds with verifiable facts. Still fears swept over our nation. Promises of a swift military campaign paving the way for a rosy future ranged from implausible to absurd. Yet they were passed along by esteemed journalists as if they were the result of sound informed analysis.

Years enough have passed that the hindsight on Viet Nam is nearly universal. The domino theory characterized capitalism and democracy as fragile flowers that would certainly be crushed by the indomitable power of communism and fascism unless vigorous military action was taken. Nonsense it may be, but it was a foreign policy doctrine that spawned all manner of affirming editorials and even scholarly works of support. It was just one among a legion of lies that only brought America to war because sound skepticism was denounced as anti-American sentiment.

Just as the Soviet Union was real, so is Al Qaeda. Just as Viet Nam was no stepping stone to Kansas, the road to terrorizing the U.S. homeland did not run through Iraq. That past tense is appropriate, because today the many thousands of Iraqi widowers and orphans know the deepest of miseries, all courtesy of Uncle Sam’s bullets and bombs. It is reasonable to think that a small portion of these tragic victims should become consumed by hate, willing to sacrifice themselves as tools of mayhem. There can be no doubt that today Iraq is home to many terrorists dedicated to making Americans suffer.

Yet, as with the domino theory, arguments that prewar Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. national security were bogus on their face. After all, Al Qaeda’s foremost priority was to eliminate secular governance throughout the Middle East. Saddam Hussein presided over one of the strongest secular governments in the region. Christians, agnostics, and even atheists were all protected under his regime. He was a brutal tyrant, but in that regard he was one of many. Some others continue to enjoy the active support of America’s present administration.

It was reasonable to assert that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. On the other hand, “he has to go” was the peak on a mountain of nonsense that would have collapsed if only a healthy measure of skepticism had been applied. As with Viet Nam, the call to make war against a non-threat was infused with both great urgency and absurd optimism. Pundits supporting the aggression predicted a total price tag of one or two billion dollars, likely to be repaid within a year or two by a gratefully liberated Iraq. Anyone who disputed that American troops could expect spontaneous gifts of flowers and candy from Iraqi civilians was ridiculed as anti-American and ill-informed.

Misguided appeals to patriotism blinded the nation to the realities of pending disaster. Thousands of our own soldiers have joined tens of thousands of slaughtered Iraqis in paying the ultimate price for this war. Yet it has done much more to degrade conditions in Iraq than to improve them. Hopefully one day that territory will be a better place to live than it was under Hussein’s Baathist regime. Presently the reverse is unmistakably true. As for the two billion dollar price tag — we should be so lucky that a week passes without spending that much on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson never said or wrote, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet history does reveal that there are instances where dissent against leadership provides a service to country while support of leadership constitutes a disservice. The American Revolution took place to give free people a chance to live in a society where the head of state wields limited power and is not regarded as a personal embodiment of the nation itself. Strains of imperialist monarchy return whenever an American President or his supporters use patriotism as a shield against reasonable critiques of flawed public policy or inaccurate public information.

Supporting a President does not make you a good American. Opposing a President does not make you a good American. Making your best effort to become informed about relevant issues, then expressing your earnest opinion without regard for its relationship to any President’s agenda — now those are the deeds of a good American. Leaders, the great as well as the terrible, will come and go. The same is true of policies. So long as the nation endures, service to it demands conscientious honesty. To do less, be it out of fear or hatred or even something as simple as a desire to conform, is to fail profoundly as an American patriot.


What You Should Think About Rugged Individualism

October 6, 2007

“Great men can’t be ruled.”

–Ayn Rand

Seldom do political discussions get more absurd than when they are joined by someone intent on regarding every social service, every stimulus effort, and even every bit of public infrastructure as an unforgivable assault on his perceived “right” to resist taxation. Even as most of these individuals imagine themselves to be somehow greater than ordinary citizens of our nation, they display a self-inflicted mental impairment that diminishes them to less than average. Be it misanthropic contempt for America’s least fortunate citizens or megalomaniacal confidence in their own personal grandeur, this renunciation of society as a concept is simple ignorance masquerading as keen political insight.

In fairness, I believe a society should allow people to be as economically independent as they choose to be. If someone wants to hike out into the woods and actually live as a “rugged individualist,” so be it. However, if someone wants to espouse that peculiar political philosophy while lounging in the comforts and securities he or she rails against, then that someone is a hypocrite of the first order. Utilizing banks and currency, hiring publicly educated employees, enjoying the security of emergency services, benefiting from the protection of the criminal justice system — I could easily go on beyond my self-imposed 1,500 word limit were I to be more exhaustive and more specific about how modern institutions of government facilitate modern accumulations of wealth.

More often than not, entrepreneurs up in arms about their obligations to support the state are really just bitter they cannot keep more of the money they siphon away from employees who actually do produce something of value with their daily labor. Yet even wealthy people who accomplish more than organizational scheming — writers, athletes, inventors, etc. — still cannot honestly claim that their personal income is something that could be sustained after the dissolution of various agencies and institutions that constitute the public sector of civilized societies.

How can I possibly know that? Well, civilization has broken down from time to time in recent history. Take Iraq, for a fresh example. The “less government is good government” ideologues in the White House seemed to think that pretty much everything except oil field security was an unfit activity for authorities in occupied Iraq. I mean, they didn’t even bother to plan for protection around museums packed full of ancient treasures . . . not to mention explosives stockpiles! It is as if they expected anarchy to be a significant upgrade over fascism.

Hindsight makes it clear this is not at all a realistic belief. Huge populations left to their own devices, with no state supervision, find themselves quickly falling prey to organized violence. Given enough chaos, self-styled “warlords” tend to replace ordinary gangsters as de facto authorities (as has been the case in some parts of Africa lately.)

State sponsored enforcement of criminal bans on various forms of victimization are essential to the accumulation of real wealth. Not only do police make it possible to retain wealth without personally becoming the leader of an armed gang, but they also create an environment of security where people of all levels of affluence will have better opportunities to become involved in productive enterprises.

However, it is fair to say that the fringe of true anarchists in modernity is fairly small. Contemporary hostility toward government usually falls short of calls to ban courts and armies altogether. Yet it still goes too far in so many other areas. Resolving basic security issues is just the foundation of a structure for promoting prosperity. Wise policies can raise that structure to great heights, creating opportunities that would otherwise simply not be viable.

For example, public education involves a mix of local, state, and federal spending intended to promote knowledge and useful basic skills amongst the general population. A simple-minded critique of public education compares the work product of private schools with public schools and produces the conclusion that everything should be privatized. This neglects the obvious fact that public school enrollees are selected by default, whereas private schools benefit from student bodies selected by the special interests or needs of those students and their families. Privatization advocates never even try to normalize for household income, scholastic aptitude, and other hugely influential factors because, even in the field of education, getting near the truth runs contrary to naked corporate avarice.

Though there are truly wasteful forms of government spending, many self-styled “rugged individualists” are awash in real benefits from really useful programs even as they renounce those programs as waste. Public roads and even subsidized mass transit facilitate enormous economic opportunity by making commuting a more inviting opportunity for workers. Social Security and related programs enable many people to focus on their careers when they might otherwise be overburdened by tending to the basic needs of elderly or disabled loved ones. Even public housing is good for business — unless your idea of good business involves being awash in panhandlers with a sprinkling of desperate criminals in the mix.

I suppose for some people there is a romantic notion at work here — the bold pioneer off in the Wild West with only his trusty rifle and the family dog to protect his kin from assorted dangers. Eking a living from the land may have its appeal for some, but that image is not at all applicable to modern day professionals and entrepreneurs. However much personal attributes factor into personal economic successes, no modern American prosperity tales would be remotely possible without the broad range of support provided by civilized governance. From regulated capital markets to bans on indiscriminate dumping of toxic waste, we see progress when collective needs are responsibly addressed . . . and setbacks when they are neglected.

Take the current economic mess related to inadequately regulated mortgage issuing and reselling. Elected officials unduly enamored with “rugged individualist” thinking were openly hostile to placing responsible controls on the American mortgage industry. Their single-minded fervor for unregulated growth caused them to forget the clear advantages generated by a middle ground that balances the need for economic freedom with the need for economic accountability. Arcane financial instruments were repackaged and resold again and again until some debtors had no idea who to actually pay . . . and likewise some creditors had no idea who to collect from. The resulting confusion combined with irresponsible pushes to promote large debt loads for working class homeowners to create a bursting bubble heard round the world.

It remains to be seen what the full impact on the American economy and America’s creditor nations will be from this mismanagement. However, it already seems clear that responsible regulation in the mortgage industry would have done much less to impair prosperity than the inevitable consequence of not having responsible regulations in place. While technocrats thrive amidst all the relevant nuances, many people prefer a coarser approach to political, economic, and philosophical issues. As much as that crudeness may feel like a stand on principle, it is all too often a stand in favor of gross oversimplification instead.

Thus it is I contend you should think that “rugged individualism” is a ruse intended to promote simple-minded approaches to civic thought. It creates a smoke screen obscuring clear insight into the realities of sound economic stewardship — an inescapably complex matter in the modern era. As far as philosophies go, it manages to be archaic and corrupt at the same time. It serves only to prevent people from getting the kind of clear picture that might be obtained by focusing on the realities of cause and effect in American public policy. In short, even though I probably don’t know you, I can write with confidence that you can do better for yourself when it comes to adopting a basis for your political, economic, and philosophical views.