Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I had another topic in mind for this week's post but some big shit happened in the wider world last night.  Ferguson, MO.  I would imagine everyone who's anyone (ha ha) is familiar with the situation so I won't waste time restating the obvious.  I abstained from jumping into the Facebook cesspool of vitriol and uninformed opinion and have opted to come here to share my vitriol and uninformed opinion.

This is a tough one for me. I think both sides are right.  I am sympathetic to both of the opposing views and I don't see a clear course of action on how to proceed from here.

First and most important, yes.  There is an epidemic of police violence towards young black males. There is a four hundred year legacy of institutional racism and oppression in this country, and no matter how hard we may want to wish it away or pretend like it does not still color much of modern American life, the fact is that it does.  White privilege.  Guess what?  A very real thing.  I can vouch for it.  I'm a white male.  I've felt it and witnessed it and I can list specific examples of it; some of them so blatant that it would sound like I either made it up or like I was a child of pre-civil rights era America.

What's not surprising is that there are so many of us white males who are oblivious to the existence of white privilege.  Try telling a struggling father working three jobs and still coming up short on the bills that he is "privileged".  You're liable to get punched square in the nose.  I understand that.

I could explain the reality of white privilege but that's not what this is about.  The point I want to make with it is that it is very easy for people in my demographic (white male) to be oblivious to our special position in society. It is VERY easy for us to sit back and ask smug questions like:  Why are they so mad?  What do they think they will accomplish by lighting cars on fire and throwing rocks at police?  Why can't they see that justice was served and this cop was just doing his job?

You know what?  If I limit my perspective to just my immediate experience, I could ask those same questions.  But one thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that using my own personal experience as a guage for the state of society at large is a mistake.

That being said, I will now venture into murkier waters and explain why I think it's possible both sides are right here.   Let's deal with the pro Darren Wilson side first.  From what I've seen of the evidence released by the grand jury - and it must be stated that grand juries are not required to release any evidence and they usually don't - this police officer was defending himself and his actions were legitimate.  I can just hear all of the boos and hisses but the evidence shows that this was a man being attacked by a much larger, more powerful individual, and cops carry guns for a reason.  Namely, to keep themselves alive in these exact scenarios.

He (the cop) acted legally and rationally.  Is it a devastating and heartbreaking tragedy that an unarmed teenager lost his life?  Hell yeah it is.  Nothing I say here is meant to detract from that.  Have there been many cases, probably hundreds, of white police officers using excessive force and often killing unarmed black teens? Again, hell yeah.  It is not even in dispute if you are willing to accept hard, empirical statistics that are publicly available.  However, each case has to be looked at individually and decided based on the facts specific to that case.

You cannot simply convict one white cop who kills an unarmed black teen on the basis that there have been other white cops who have unjustifiably killed unarmed black teens.  You can't do it even if you know by NOT doing it there will be riots and violence and old, deep wounds will be re-opened.  It's too bad that this tragedy has to be judged through the lens of race, but that is America.  That is our history.  There's no escaping it, and the process of overcoming it has been and will continue to be incredibly difficult.  And I think it will take at least another couple of generations to truly work itself out, assuming it's even possible to completely work out.  The fact is, it's a scar that may never go away.  Some don't.

Now for the other half of my argument.  There is rioting and sadness and anger erupting as I type this.  At least from what I've seen, if you are a black American,  you are outraged and feel that a grievous injustice has been committed here.  And I think you are wrong.  In this one specific case, unless the three forensic pathologists reports are all inaccurate, and the eye witness testimony completely fabricated, I cannot see how this police officer could have been convicted for murdering Michael Brown.

But hear me out before you discount me as another privileged, out of touch white guy.

Just because I don't think this one specific incident was a miscarriage of justice, please understand that I will admit without hesitation that there have been thousands of miscarriages of justice.  Thousands of cases of racially motivated police brutality and murder that went completely unpunished, unnoticed, not even considered noteworthy because hey, it's so normal it's not even news.  That is where this country has been.  It's still happening now.

 It appears that our status quo is that it's open season on young black males if you are a white police officer and maybe even just a white guy in general.  Black mothers and fathers have every reason to be terrified for the safety of their children.  It is perhaps fair to say that the biggest physical threat they face - and in many neighborhoods they face many - comes from the very people who are supposed to be protecting them.  What do you do if you are the parent of a black teenager?  What do you tell them?  I have no answers for that.  Not even from my privileged perspective here outside of the perimeter of the dangerous zone that is ordinary life for millions of my fellow Americans.

I cannot pretend to relate to the frustrations and legitimate grievances held by the black community in the wake of yet another young black kid killed by the police.  And forgive me if this is presumptuous to say, but I understand why you are feeling rage and probably even hopelessness at this time.  Your reaction is justified and based on a reality that so many of your fellow Americans don't see or just flat out pretend doesn't exist.  Your struggle is real.  Know that some of 'us' know that.

I tried to explain this to a friend today and what I said was imagine that someone has punched you in the face 100 times and you have just sat there and taken it. Then the 101th punch is just a fake but you strike back on that one. It almost doesn't even matter that the punch was just a fake.  You are bloodied and bruised and have been pushed to the limit of human tolerance and patience. At some point frustration and a basic survival instinct kick in.  That's what we have here.

When I see the smug, condescending, and insensitive reactions from many of my white Facebook friends, I get pretty pissed off.  It would be easy for me to just choose sides and say welcome to Amerikkka, and go on about how an injustice has taken place.  But I can't do that if I'm honest.  I can say injustice has been committed en masse, against blacks in America, by whites in America.  There are massive double standards about what constitutes acceptable behavior between white teenagers (just being typical rowdy youngsters) and black teenagers (dangerous thugs).  All of this shit is real.  But one injustice cannot make up for another.  Convicting a white cop just because it feels like that's what should have been done would not bring back Michael Brown and would not erase the disease of racism that's still flowing through the veins of America. It would just be another injustice.  

I feel anger and sadness like any sane person should.  To the white assholes on Facebook who are celebrating like it's a sport...congratulations on being insensitive assholes who fan the flames of racial resentment.  And from your privileged, sheltered little perch at that.  To the black people who had their minds made up about this case before they even bothered to see the evidence...well, I'm not sure exactly what to say to you. Who am I to say anything to you really?  Everything in your own experience and history gives you a million reasons to pre-judge this case.  Hell, you are prejudged every day, every where you go.  I'd like to say, please give the facts a chance here.  Please be reasonable and look at the evidence.  Don't project all of the true injustice that's been committed against you onto this particular incident.  I'd like to say that but damn I know that's asking a lot.  Would I be so noble if I were in your shoes?  I can't say.  What I can say is that I'm angry and heart broken too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Something Novel

Could there be anything more ridiculous than writing an essay about writing a novel when you haven't even written a novel? Ponder.  And I shall do the same, sort of.

When I was a school boy there were multiple times when an elementary or middle school teacher would comment on my writing ability. It was good, they claimed.  That, however, doesn't mean a damn thing because that's what school teachers do: encourage and inspire confidence in their students, especially the ones that demonstrate any remote interest or competence in a given subject. And that's about what I had...some small scrap of competence for stringing words together coherently.  That probably stood out to the teachers because from what I observed at the time many of my peers were unable to grasp the basics of their native tongue. The bar was low.

Then came junior college English class, freshman year.  We had to like, write stuff.  I generally found it irritating but less irritating than some of my other classes.  One of our first assignments was a "how to" essay.  It could be about how to do anything.  I wrote an essay on how to cruise the strip for girls in the small east Texas town where I went to high school.  The teacher, bless her heart, really flipped for my essay.  She pulled me aside after class, asked if she could save it and use it as an example for her future classes, told me I was really talented, and insisted that I sign up for the basic creative writing class there at the college.  She was so emphatic about it that I agreed. It sounded like an easy credit.

The creative writing teacher was a more discerning and honest critic. She was, let's say, less than impressed with my verbal virtuosity.  I did okay in the class but she made it clear that I should probably not count on becoming the next great American author.  My feelings were not hurt because I didn't think of my self as a writer anyway.  There were some actual serious writers in the class. People who wrote for the love of writing.  People who were passionate about it and who had read great works of literature and actually knew what the hell they were doing.  I, on the other hand, could only remember reading Charlotte's Web and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe up to that point.  Maybe the Scarlet Letter too, which I detested.  And thinking about it I remember some Geoffrey Chaucer as well.   But I had read very little, had little to no understanding what made good writing or a good story, and my very presence in that class was probably an affront to the other students who actually were serious and gave a damn.  I was an immature, self-absorbed, very young man, going through the kinds of weird things 19 year old boys go through, and as far as school went I was just going through the motions.  Now if she would have told me I was not a good basketball player, my fragile self-esteem might have crumbled irreversibly; but writing?  Blah.

I say all of that to say this:  I am not a gifted writer.  Not then, not now.  Despite some kind words from some well-meaning people, I recognize that there are people out there with a natural talent with words and story-telling and that I am not one of them.


I'm an adult now.  Within the last decade I've discovered a love for reading that was not there when I was in school.  I've sought out good literature and devoured dozens (or more) of very fine novels. Now an avid reader does not a writer make.  I get this. To think so would be like saying all you have to do to become a great basketball player is have a deep admiration for Lebron James.   That's not at all how it works.  To be great or even good at something requires a combination of natural talent and very hard work.    

What piques my curiosity though is the possibility that if I do have some small level of competence with the written word, could that now combine with my more mature appreciation and understanding of good writing to form a potential that is worth exploring?  Most likely not. But it would just be exploring, after all.  Specifically, could I write a novel?

The reason I wonder aloud here about this is because there is a pattern I have noticed in my life.  When something makes a big impression on me it's not enough for me to remain just an observer.  I have to try it.  That's why videos appear here from time to time with me trying to imitate a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo.  I am so taken by something I ask myself "how in the hell do they do that?".  And I have to find out for myself. I see the same thing beginning to happen with writing.  I experience the genius of David Mitchell or Tom Robbins or Charles Dickens and it leaves me with that same "How the hell do they do that?" feeling that eventually leads to me trying it myself.  It's wildly pretentious, laughably ambitious, and will probably amount to nothing more than a mountain of frustration.  I'm still intrigued by the possibilities and the challenge of it though.  There are worse things that I could waste my time on.

While I currently have zero plot ideas for a novel, I do think I have a good grasp of the elements that make a good novel.  Of course, some of that is objective and everyone has different tastes.  There are so many different genres and types of novels it would be hard to know where to start. I mentioned David Mitchell and Tom Robbins and what impresses me so much about them is that their work is really hard to put labels on.  Anything can happen and there are no rules.  For all I know that is probably the most difficult approach and one that only the most gifted can pull off, but it looks really fun.

Where will this lead?  Maybe not even beyond this blog post.  I honestly don't know.  Just thinking aloud as it were.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ben In Italy

I'm long overdue here, and I'm back.  Not because I have anything profound to share this evening, but to see if I still know how to work a keyboard for anything longer than a snarky Facebook post.  That is what my political and social commentary has devolved to. Never underestimate the fun that can be had alienating friends, ex-classmates, and co-workers with your outspoken political opinions. 

We recently fulfilled a dream that was in the making for the past decade or so.  We have long wanted to go to Italy but until the last few years my wife had issues that prevented her from travelling.  Finally, three or so weeks ago, we made our first journey across the Atlantic.  From Fort Worth, to Amsterdam, to Italy.  We spent about two weeks there, with the time almost equally split between Venice, Florence, and Rome. 

Some random thoughts and observations from our travels...

Firstly, Ben's body does not respond well to rapidly crossing multiple time zones in a short period of time.  Circadian rhythm disruption, also known as jet lag (but I hate that term), was a real bitch. It affects everyone differently, and apparently it affects me quite severely.  This makes sense because I had sleeping problems up until my mid twenties which I eventually resolved by keeping a pretty regimented go to bed and wake up schedule.  I learned some things to help next time though; primarily that melatonin is my friend in dark times. (See what I did there?)

Secondly, I tried to keep my expectations low for this long awaited adventure.  To be clear, I expected it to be great but had no specific expectations about how things would be.  My only preconceived notion was that I expected to like Venice the least.  What was I thinking?  Venice was my favorite. There is simply no other place like it in the world.  It's filled with tourists but there's a valid reason for that.  It's magical.  Saint Mark's basilica was a standout for me.  I'm not religious, I sure couldn't be classified as Christian, but I was filled with awe and my eyes filled with tears when I stepped through the doors there.  I can't explain it but that was a powerful place for me.  A dozen basilicas later I had sort of grown immune to their splendor, which is a shame.  But Saint Mark's was my first, and I'll never forget it.

Thirdly,  I expected people to speak more English there than they actually did.  Now how stereotypically ignorant American is that?  Guilty as charged. I just figured with millions of tourists flocking there, so many English speaking, that it would prevalent.  It was not.  We had many experiences dealing with people who do not speak our language, which can be both fun and frustrating.  I should have taken the time to learn some basic Italian phrases. 

Fourthly,  If you ever go to Florence, climb the stairs to the top of Giotto's bell tower at the Duomo.  The views of the city are breathtaking and the climb up will take your breath away also but no worries.  That was another highlight of the trip for me.

Fifthly,  To paraphrase both my wife and mom "boy, the Italians make us look like slobs".  Now I can't get into the pointy shoes and skinny jeans look but there is no denying that they take much more pride in their appearance in public than we do here in America.  What happened to people giving a shit?  I'd like to know.  People are dressed nice and you cannot find an overweight person.  How does that work in a land where everyone eats pasta, gelato, and wine all the time?  Another clue that the American food/health system is freaking scam.  I'd be embarrassed to walk into a Chili's or McDonald's with a person from Italy. Or a Wal Mart.  I'm just saying.

Well...I could certainly go on.  But that regimented bed time thing is kicking in and I will conclude by saying that I feel like a person changed for the better by having had this experience.  Sadly travel has become yet another status symbol in American culture and is possibly a little too hyped and glorified by people who feel the need to escape their normal life or just feel more special than people not fortunate enough to travel.  However, I think anyone who makes it a priority could do it.  And at the risk of adding to the cliché chorus, they should.  If they can.  It gives you a broader perspective and that's never a bad thing.  And I'll practice what I preach as I'm looking forward to making another journey across the pond in another year or two. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Obamacare rage is all the rage at the moment and since I have been a supporter of healthcare reform I will chime in.  It’s not elegant but I’ve organized this into sections that reflect my thinking on the ACA.

Legitimate Healthcare System Problems Unaddressed by The Critics

·         Millions of people like myself are shut-out of health insurance outside of a large group, employment based plan.

·         Thousands of people are routinely dropped by their health insurers when they get sick and/or reach a lifetime policy cap

·         Thousands of the ones who get sick and don’t get dropped have their premiums increased to unaffordable rates because they are costing insurers too much.

·         49 million people are completely uninsured.  If acknowledging the basic immorality and inhumanity of this is too much to ask, just focus on the fact that these uninsured people are making YOUR healthcare costs higher via expensive emergency room treatment.  You’re already subsidizing them, just in the least efficient way possible.

·         60%+ of all bankruptcies in the US are medical bill related.  The majority of those bankruptcies are from people who HAVE health insurance.

·         The US spends twice the per capita average of the OECD countries for results that are average.

The people who are so giddy about all of the negative headlines are offering no solutions for these very real problems.  Why?  Because they don’t actually care about improving healthcare access and delivery, they only care about attacking a president who makes them crazy. 

Media Hyperventilation

If the media would have devoted this level of sensationalism and attention to the problems of the pre-ACA healthcare system Americans would have demanded reform decades ago and we’d probably already be on a single-payer style system like the rest of the civilized world.  The pre-ACA world has thousands of people who were suddenly dropped from their coverage, or told their favorite doctor is no longer in-network, or who had their premiums skyrocket from one year to the next, or who were just flat denied coverage altogether due to a pre-existing condition;  plenty of real-life cases that the media could have highlighted.   

If the pre-ACA and post-ACA healthcare systems were given a fair trial in the public media I have no doubt that “Obamacare” would come out the clear winner.  Interestingly, the media has given zero coverage to the people who have already benefited from the ACA or who will be benefiting over the next couple of years.  And many of the ACA victim stories have been roundly debunked, two prominent ones involved major features in the WSJ and on CBS news.  We are often presented with an incomplete story that turns out to be not as clear cut as the headline sounds.  The ACA has some very real problems. The rollout has been terrible, and many of the criticisms are legit.  But the media presentation is making it out like the new healthcare law is ushering in the apocalypse for what was a healthcare utopia.  And comparing it to Bush’s response to hurricane Katrina?  Because having some website glitches while you are trying to give people better access to healthcare is JUST LIKE leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded and helpless after a devastating natural disaster. Please. 

Republican Paradox

Conservatives have claimed from day one that Obamacare will be an unmitigated disaster.  If they truly believe this to be the case then they should view it as political gold.  Allowing Obamacare to be fully implemented and then fail miserably could do more to discredit democrats/liberalism than Roger Ailes could ever dream of.  But they’ve tried 40+ times to repeal the law.  They’ve desperately attempted to sabotage and defund it at every step of the way, anything to prevent it from getting off the ground.  Why?  Because their true fear is that Obamacare will SUCCEED.  And their true expectations are evident from their actions.  If you really believe something will destroy your opponents, you sit back and enjoy the carnage.  You don’t fight desperately to stop it from happening.  If Obamacare does succeed it will be a devastating blow to the republican party.  For a party already suffering from considerable demographic and image problems this cannot be a pleasant prospect.   

Incidentally, it’s been hilarious to see conservative media and republican politicians all of the sudden playing the role of consumer advocate.  What hypocrites.  Where was this breathless concern when insurance companies were cancelling policies, denying coverage, and jacking up premiums prior to the ACA?

Rationale For The Healthcare Law

Insurance is simply the pooling of risk.  The larger the pool, the lower the cost per individual in the pool.  This is an actuarial fact.  The idea behind Obamacare is to get more people into the risk pool, thereby lowering the overall cost. It’s a sound concept.  Healthcare is not a “product” that a person can simply opt in or out of.  Everyone will use the healthcare system.  Therefore, everyone who can afford to should pay into it.  The main problem with Obamacare is that it relies on a patchwork of private, for-profit insurance companies to achieve this larger insurance pool.  It was set up this way in order to be “market based” and therefore more palatable to conservatives.  A single, mandatory, all-inclusive insurance pool (aka: single payer) would achieve the ACA’s objectives far more effectively.  It’s interesting that most of the ACA’s problems being pounced on by the opposition stem directly from the compromises in the law that were intended to placate them.  (Them being the republicans who believe in the magical fairy dust of the so called free-market.)

Democrats and ACA Supporters Have A Tougher PR Job

One of the central tenets of conservative politics is playing on people’s inherent fear of change. Whether it’s the government coming to get you, or the Muslims, or immigrants stealing your job and money, or “socialized medicine”, the conservative machine thrives on fear.  This is effective because fear of change is natural to the human condition.  Even if it’s changing from something terrible to something better, people are more comfortable with the devil they know.   Democrats and ACA supporters have always faced an uphill battle selling the idea that healthcare system can change for the better.  

My Criticism Of The ACA

On principle I hate the idea that government can require an individual to purchase a product from a private corporation.  But again, this strange and unfair sounding requirement stems from the fact that the ACA is a compromise designed to appease republicans who demand a “market based” approach.  Once it became clear that not a single republican would vote for healthcare reform and that democrats would be accused of being socialist Nazis no matter what they did, they should have scrapped the market-based compromised and crafted a more “socialistic” program.  At the very least they should have included a public-option that would have given individuals the ability to meet the coverage requirement without having to deal with the for-profit health insurance cartel.  At the time the law was being debated it was amusing to listen to the same people who say government can’t do anything right also complain that a public-option would have unfair advantage over our beloved private insurers. 

My second complaint with the ACA is how the individual mandate is structured.  The penalty for not buying insurance is too low.  And the enforceability of the penalty is too weak.  The viability of the ACA depends on younger, healthier individuals entering the insurance pool.  The mechanism designed to get them there has no teeth.   If the new entrants to the insurance pool are mostly older, sicker people, then health insurance companies will have no choice but to raise premiums.  This would be the true death-spiral for the healthcare law.


My Prediction
In one to two years time the benefits of the healthcare law will be evident and hundreds of thousands will be enjoying the benefits: grateful to be able to buy reasonably priced insurance even if they have a pre-existing condition, not having to fear being dropped from their insurance coverage when they need it most, and enjoying overall lower premiums due to an expanded insurance pool.  Not to mention the satisfaction of knowing their country has finally moved closer to making sure the basic human need of accessible healthcare is now a reality for most of their fellow citizens.  But I think this is just a stepping stone.  Within thirty years the absurdity and inefficiency of our privatized healthcare system will become so obvious and undeniable that no amount of right-wing fear mongering will be able to stop the move to a single-payer system.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The One Thing To Know

I'm one of those strange people who have never had the desire to have or raise children and luckily my wife is also one of those strange people.  Some of the reasons for this have been mentioned in another blog post.  Despite bearing no offspring I've often thought of some of the lessons I would try to teach to a young child based on my own life experience.  The truth is, kids or no kids, I feel like we all have an obligation to pass on some of the hard earned wisdom that has been gained through experience.  In theory the human race should be evolving for the better with each generation as the mistakes of the previous ones are avoided and knowledge is passed on.  It doesn't appear to be working out quite that neatly but it's a good thought.

Regarding the advice I would give, the first thing that comes to mind can be conveyed in two words.

Be kind.

That's more than a little cliché and too simple to be very interesting but I honestly can't imagine a more important value to instill in our little human beings in the making.  If anything will make the world a better place to be, it's more love and kindness.  Hat tip to the Beatles for preaching this message to millions of adoring and impressionable fans all over the world - all you need is love.

The problem with my simple advice of "be kind" is that part of just about anyone will be asking, "what's in for me?".  Well there is a lot in it for you.  There is now scientific evidence proving there is something in it for you, but don't take anyone's word for it, just try it and find out.  Be your own scientist.  Life is one big experiment.  Test the hypothesis and see what you get out of it. 

Knowing that there's a part in many of us that will still not have the 'what's in it for me?' feeling satisfied, and intrigued by the challenge of coming up with some less cliché words of wisdom, I'd like to contribute another small nugget. 

This one is meant to appeal purely to the sentiment of self-interest but will make being kind and everything else a much easier proposition.  Unfortunately I can't summarize this one in two short words or even two long sentences but if I were given the opportunity to tip off a younger version of myself to a concept that would make all of life flow much more easily, this would be it:

There is a part of you that is already whole, happy, peaceful, and perfectly at ease at all points within the wide range of human experience, from the beautiful to the horrifying.  Seek out this part of yourself with every ounce of effort you can muster.  Pardon another cliché, but look within.  Be still and quiet.  Take it on faith at first.  Just know that it's there and it thrives no matter what life may throw at you; and life will throw many things at you.  There will be very low and scary points and also very happy and exciting points, interspersed with periods of boredom or melancholy.  The range of human emotions and experiences is vast and there is no escaping the fact that to some degree you will find yourself at every point along that spectrum.  Just know there is that part of you that is perfectly at peace and happy regardless of outer circumstances.

Put another way, develop an inner life.  Start out with the simple faith that within yourself is this perfectly happy and peaceful awareness that is always present no matter what happens 'out there'. From that starting point seek out this part of yourself.  There are many things you can do to progress from faith to firsthand experience. The most effective is to meditate.  Learn to be still and quiet and to let all of the mental activity naturally quiet down and become familiar with what remains.  Be there for extended periods of time.  That's the most direct route.

There are many helpful references that you can consult to assist with this primary objective of cultivating an inner life.  Read and absorb the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and more modern authentic teachers of spirituality like Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, Ramakrishna, Paramahansa Yogananda, and their contemporaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Roy Eugene Davis, and Adyashanti.  These are just a few. There are many others, dozens if not hundreds of teachers that essentially have the same message presented in their own unique way. If eastern sounding teachers/teachings turn you off, there are western teachers as well.  We all possess a unique set of personality characteristics and some presentations will appeal or click with us better than others.  The point is that there are plenty of helpful guides out there if we feel inclined to consult with external sources in our effort to discover this part of ourselves that is always whole, happy, at peace, and untouched by external circumstances.

It isn't necessary to put this in a religious or spiritual context.  Religion has discredited itself over the millennia and a number of people are uncomfortable with the idea of spirituality, and if either of those apply to you, just think of it as a psychological exercise.  Again, know there is a peaceful and still center within you and find it.  The repetition here is intentional because it is the main message and theme of this post and if I could pass anything on to my own children or any that I might influence - this would be it.  Adults too.  I sincerely feel like it is the most valuable piece of advice that could be offered.  It will make every other endeavor that much easier.

This isn't the same as the grand, impossible sounding idea of Spiritual Enlightenment.  It's practical and accessible to anyone and doesn't require an excessive amount of intelligence or material wealth. If you can begin to know that part of yourself that is already whole and is untouchable by outer circumstances, it will be an invaluable refuge when times are hard and a necessary grounding force when everything seems to be going perfectly. 

In an effort at clarity here are some more characteristics of this part of you that I am referring to; nothing can be subtracted or added to it, it requires no one's approval, it is there in all of it's fullness and wholeness even when everything else seems to be falling apart, it is deeper than any temporary emotion or feeling that you may be experiencing at any point in time, it could be said that it is perfect or flawless. Also: it is always 'there', it is the silent witness to everything happening inside and outside of you, it is unchanging, and it is what you have in common with every other living being in the universe.  If any of that sounds too new agey or out there for your personal tastes, just overlook it.  I am just trying to outline something and paint a picture and I'm limited by my own personality and perspective.  Different adjectives and descriptions may work better for your disposition but the general idea is the same.

Nothing can fully exempt any of us from the perils and fragility of the human experience but what I am describing here can definitely smooth the way.  I personally haven't perfected living from the state of consciousness I am referring to but I have enough experience with it to know what I'm talking about and to confidently say it is the most valuable thing I could 'give' to another human being. (You can't give someone something they already have, but you can alert them to the fact that they have it.)

The end result of this pursuit is the intuitive and pervading sense that at all times, in every circumstance, all is well.   That doesn't mean all problems go away or that everything will always be perfect on the material or emotional level. It means they don't have to be and you are still okay.  All is well.  But please do not take my word for it. Experiment and find out for yourself.  Be patient but be diligent. 

So there it is. My words of wisdom to my non-existent children (or anyone else who's interested).

I could probably tighten this up and make it more concise but this will do for now.  Be kind. All is well.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Piercing The Veil

I’d like to take some time here to describe a world that I’m pretty familiar with.  It’s a sort of parallel universe that is similar to ours, but different.  The people who inhabit it know certain things.  They know that Barack Obama’s presidency has been a total disaster.  They know he is the worst president ever in the history of history. Ever.  In this parallel world, inhabited by these people who are privy to things the rest of us are not, there are some indisputable truths. 

Some of them are as follows:  Obama is the worst president in the history of the world. (Maybe I’ve already mentioned that one.) Obama has wrecked the American economy and the entrepreneurial spirit.  His policies have ushered in an age of government dependency and socialism.  He has put an unprecedented tax and regulatory burden on America’s job creators and its middle class.  He has increased the national debt and deficit at a rate never before seen in the history of the United States.  His foreign policy has been a disaster.  After going on an apology tour to Muslim countries where he apologized profusely for American values, he lowered America’s standing in the world by signaling that he was a weak and indecisive leader of the free world.  He’s been weak on terrorism.  He hates the military.  He hates Christians.   He especially hates Christians that are in the military.   He’s a radical.  It’s obvious to everyone.  He’ll be a one termer. Probably lose the election by a landslide, just like Jimmy Carter.  He’s the black Jimmy Carter; biggest mistake America ever made.  After all, everyone knows that O.B.A.M.A. stands for “One Big Ass Mistake America”!

I might have gotten a little carried away towards the end but that is a general outline of the parallel universe.

Now, if you don’t inhabit that rarified plane or are otherwise unfamiliar with it, some of that stuff might sound a little crazy or extreme.  You might get the impression that only really crazy and extreme people would believe those things, but you would be very wrong.  You see, I am familiar with this other world because I know many people who live there.  And most of them are not crazy or irrational or unreasonable at all.  Many of them are very smart and even educated.  They’re good people, many of my own friends and family.  (To be fair, a few of them really are certifiably batshit looney, but not many!)

This is a fascinating thing to me.  Because while I am intimately familiar with this world where everyone knows – just knows! – these types of things to be true…I reside outside of this world.  To me, each and every one of those “truths” mentioned above, are easily debunked luminous piles of horse shit.

To put it simply, anyone who is well informed from a variety of sources can quickly see that any and all of the statements above are either just flat wrong or at best are wildly exaggerated.  There is objective, empirical, publicly available data that deflates most of the truths of our aforementioned alternate reality.

This parallel information universe has some names.  Bill Maher calls it The Bubble.  John Stewart refers to it as Bullshit Mountain.  Even a prominent conservative, Julian Sanchez, wrote a piece several years ago describing it as “epistemic closure”.  Whatever you want to call it, it is a closed circuit information loop - an echo chamber that operates outside of the established parameters of science, math, even history. 

And some very good, otherwise smart people get stuck there; close friends and family of mine, people I respect. 

All snark and sarcasm aside, I have exerted a great deal of effort at times to penetrate this bubble.  I’ve found myself genuinely concerned and confused at the power and hold this phenomenon has on people.  It’s like quicksand or a black hole for critical thinking.  That sounds insulting, but I am not trying to be insulting.  I’m just stating my personal experience and this is how it appears to me.  The right wing media, which, for the most part I think of as Fox/Drudge/Limbaugh/Beck has a cult-like hold on the minds of far too many of my fellow Americans.

I’m bringing this up now for a reason.  During my career of trying to free minds from the Conservative Matrix I have tried to combat fantasy with reality by referring people to facts and figures.  Things like changes in the unemployment rate, or debt added by the various presidents, or number of regulations enacted by one president versus another, or stock market and corporate profit data…in regards to Obama, basically anything that just shows that the kinds of wild exaggerations and assertions I listed above aren’t exactly on the mark.  I’ve tried put things in historical perspective, provide some context.  

Sometimes this is successful. Usually it is not.  In terms of changing someone’s perspective with this method, my success rate is probably somewhere around 5%.  Meaning maybe one in twenty people have come around.  That doesn’t mean they suddenly love Obama or become a liberal. (Which isn’t what I’m after anyway.) It just means they acknowledge the problems with the kinds of claims I mentioned above; the beliefs that are gospel to the conservative faithful.  They take a more critical look at the information sources that they’ve relied on to form their worldview. 

All I’m ever really after is trying to get people to agree to a common reality.  Philosophical differences will always be there and that is fine.  Smart and principled people can debate those differences intelligently.  But statements like “Obama has added more taxes and regulations than any president in history” have no place in an intelligent discussion.   We have hard data on this.  There’s history. We can count and compare the number of regulations.  We can look at the tax rates and the taxes collected.  We don’t have to conjecture.  I’m glad that we don’t all agree and debate is healthy and necessary.  But having one half of the population that lives in its own made up reality is not healthy. It’s terrible for democracy and representative government and makes it impossible to solve actual problems. 

I’m a little off on a tangent, so what’s my point.  We’ve just had an election and what and how it all happened serves as the perfect illustration for the existence of and the dangers of The Bubble. 

Some of us could see this coming.  This shock and disbelief, what must have felt like being shoved into the Twilight Zone for our friends and family who reside in the parallel conservative universe.  Now I won’t even lie here. I had no idea who was going to win the election.  When Romney chose Ryan as VP my best guess was that he just handed the election to Obama, but that was just an educated guess.  After Obama’s first debate it was really in question.  

I truly thought Obama was going to win when it came down to it, but I wasn’t confident enough to make bold proclamations on Facebook or anywhere else.  Most importantly, I didn’t rely on my gut feeling or for one news source for polling information when I was trying to gather facts and get a sense of who could win.  I used a wide variety of sources, which is what I do.  Nate Silver at 538 has a great track record.  There were several other good polling aggregators out there as well.  There was data.  And the data was always clear: Look for a very close popular vote but Obama has Ohio, and therefore the election, in the bag.  That never changed throughout the final few weeks.  Even as Dick Morris and Michael Barrone of Fox, and Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal were somehow, with a straight face, predicting a landslide Romney victory. 

George Will and several others were too.  People inside the Echo Chamber believed them.  Those of us outside shook our heads as usual.  And as usual, the conservative media attacked the messenger(s) when they didn’t like the message.  “The polling is biased.” “Nate Silver is effeminate and has a girly voice.”  The usual shallow, inane, bullshit attacks on anyone who dares to intrude on right wing reality.

This isn’t a gloat post.  This is a post about hope.  It’s a hope that the millions of people who were convinced to ignore any outside information to the contrary and buy into conservative media’s version of reality will use this experience as a wake-up call.  I saw it first hand.  People who were genuinely shocked, surprised, baffled; it just can’t be. How can it be?  There were literally tears shed. 

It didn’t have to be this way for the people that were on the losing end of this election.

That’s all I’m saying.

A short venture outside of the parallel universe and into the wider world would’ve given these people a more realistic expectation and they would’ve been better prepared to handle the possibility that Romney wouldn’t win by a 30% margin. Even Romney and his campaign were utterly shocked and I have to wonder how that is possible.
For all of us, there is a danger in believing our own bullshit.  The right believed its own bullshit and was blindsided en masse.  This was a visceral experience for many conservatives, a deep, and really a cruel disappointment.

So…friends, family, and anyone else out there who has been ensnared by The Bubble.  Please, please, take this as a learning experience and escape from the world where math and science don’t count if they conflict with your view point, where any news source that doesn’t toe the party line is biased.  It’s a wide, wide world.  Exciting and scary at times, sure.  But please come back to the world of facts.  Join us in reality.  Even if we disagree, we need you here.   

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Debt By Prez

I created these two charts out of curiosity and really just as a reference for myself but thought I’d go ahead and publish them here.  This is the United States and the president is not a dictator which limits the usefulness of a simplistic comparison like this but it is still interesting and instructive. The president is the single most powerful individual in government.  They set the tone and provide the leadership that moves policy one direction or another. 

Since republicans are breathlessly criticizing the president for increasing the national debt and claiming, as usual, to be the party of fiscal responsibility, this data seems especially relevant.  To put it simply, there is no historical basis for giving the republican party any credibility on the subject of decreasing our debt.  If past performance is any indication of future results, we should expect the opposite.  At least over the course of my lifetime debt has grown much faster under republican presidents than under democrats.

Reagan is the one who really jumps off the page here; the deified standard bearer, universally praised for being the ultimate crusader against big government, and yet, no president in recent history has even come close to exploding the national debt in the way he did.  More than just an actor, Reagan must have been a master of mass hypnosis, as even in death millions of Americans have a completely inaccurate view of his presidency.  

The fact that the hero of the American right is someone who managed to preside over a debt increase of 189% tells you a lot about the modern American right.  I think it's no coincidence that this hero was a professional actor.  He ushered in the ultimate political con-job, “trickle down economics”, a wet dream for economic elites that was so cynical even George H.W. Bush referred to it as Voodoo Economics. It almost feels like a cruel joke that a republican presidential candidate is able to sell this same failed formula thirty years later.  I am continually amazed at how there never seems to be any real political consequences for republicans when their ideas and policies fail miserably.