Saturday, November 27, 2010

The O'Reilly Factor

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the tone of discourse and punditry in the media today. Many rightly feel that there is a distinct media bias in the coverage of news these days, and that this is in some way a dramatic change from the past. 

I would argue however that the plethora of news sources out there has simply made the playing field so diverse that the ability of one organization to point out the failings others only highlights the slant and selective coverage of both. I would further point out that the number of bloggers out there serving as an alternative 'amateur' news source also serves to point out the glaringly apparent shortcomings where both print and broadcast media are concerned. 

Information shows have seen a change however, and not necessarily for the better where the interview and news-talk shows are concerned. This began perhaps with the descent of weekly news shows like '60 Minutes'. This show at some point went down the dark path not only in the choice of the stories that it covered, but in the editing of the interviews in order to drive home the particular point of view of the segment producer. Good guys and bad guys were decided by camera angles, lighting, and the careful cutting of even more carefully worded questions and responses. A predisposed bias was subtly and effectively promulgated in what was sold to us as hard-hitting investigative journalism; but in fact was a careful blending of ambush and editorializing. 

Next came the the plethora of news shows with live interviews, where both hosts and guests quickly discovered that in order to play the game effectively, one had to be 'prepped' by increasingly more professional handlers. Being visible on such shows was important, but more important was having the required clever lines and talking points memorized. It didn't matter if the questions were hard-hitting, or the answers had anything to do with them, as long as those answers were part of a biased message that the guest was trying to deliver. 

Hosts of these shows became frustrated, since they attempted to play by the rules while not antagonizing guests; and the guests refused to follow their lead. The visiting team had a distinct advantage by playing the game it wanted the way it wanted to, while the home team looked mostly irrelevant. There was no longer information being sought and explored, but instead a disjointed and fractious competition where the winner had already been decided. The level of discourse and interviewing used today has become little more than a meandering diatribe followed by non sequitur. 

Nowhere is this more personified than on one of the more popular of the purported news commentary shows, 'The O'Reilly Factor'. Now for those who don't or haven't watched this show, Bill O'Reilly is someone who has been part of journalism for some time. As well as spending time as a legitimate reporter, he also spent some time on the tabloid side while hosting shows like 'Hard Copy'. 

Since 1996, he has hosted a show on the Fox News Channel (perhaps its most popular) in which he combines the worst of both of those worlds. This has nothing to do with Mr O'Reilly's opinions, which I may or may not agree with, but with the level that such discourse has sunk to in the process. Mr O'Reilly seems to personify the current concept of political punditry, which has become little more than hosts saying 'look at me'. 

Interviews normally begin with him expressing an opinion and then asking the guest to tell him where he's wrong. If the guest agrees, he get 20 seconds to do so before being interrupted to confirm the host is right and move on to the next host opinion/question. If he disagrees, he gets half of that time before being called out as foolish or misinformed. 

In fact while I haven't timed it, I think a comparative analysis of microphone 'time of possession' would find Mr O'Reilly holding the field of play better than 75% of the time. This begs the question that if you are not going to let a guest answer the questions posed, why bring them on at all. 

Bill O'Reilly is not alone however. Rush Limbaugh forgoes interviews on his 3 hour syndicated show 5 days a week, but finds a different path to the same goal. While saying that he doesn't want to talk about himself, he instead spends much of each hour sharing with us what others have said about him, as if that's all that's going on. 

Sean Hannity spends probably more of his time on his radio and TV show telling us about the personal appearances, book signings, and things that he will be talking about later than he does telling us anything else. Glenn Beck is equally busy promoting books, personal appearances, movie theater broadcasts of personal appearances; and less so in informing us of information that he claims is vital that we hear and understand. 

Media stores and subscription websites can do little but prove to us that such labors are exercises in capitalism rather than information. (And for those of you who believe that I am attacking those on the right without due consideration to the panderers on the left, let me state that my failure to comment on Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, or Rachel Maddow is only because their efforts so nauseate me that I cannot stand to subject myself to such punishment long enough to properly critique them.)

Unfortunately, lost in all this self-promotion is any legitimate news or insight that any of these pundits might offer. Picking the nuggets of truth and information from the overwhelming barrage of self-serving nonsense is difficult at best. Even when one concedes that these are potentially intelligent and well-read individuals, the constant self-promotion leaves one too tired to retain the carefully winnowed rewards. 

The few legitimate news and opinion offerings out there are drowned out by egotistic tabloid punditry. And while everyone has a right to try and make a buck, it's unfortunate that we've turned news and opinion into little more than a traveling medicine show. It's likewise unfortunate that at a time when so many are looking for unbiased facts and answers to vital questions in society, all we are offered is the equivalent of entertainment at the intellectual level of the WWE. It's sad to me especially that at a time when this country would be well-served by reasoned Conservative voices, all we are offered is little more than hucksters and little better than the O'Reilly factor.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What I'm (Not) Thankful For

There will undoubtedly be many who will write in the next couple of days about all of the wonderful things in this world that they are thankful for. The love of family and friends will likely make all lists, but others will share feelings on their health, their country and those serving it around the world, and the freedom that we enjoy. 

While I share all of these sentiments, I would not be fulfilling my duties if I succumbed to such maudlin sentimentality every time a government-mandated holiday came along. In order to execute those responsibilities therefore, I have decided to list some of the things that I am not thankful for on this day before we celebrate the Pilgrims traveling from Plymouth to Plymouth.
  • I'm not thankful for the excellent cooking that I will be sampling on this day dedicated to over-eating, which will not only leave me feeling extremely uncomfortable that day; but will also ruin my self-image for many days ahead when I look down at the scale with guilt to see what my gluttony has done.
  • I'm not thankful for retail outlets that will be open all day Thanksgiving and long before the crack of dawn on 'Black Friday'; proving that while cash may be short in this country's economy, there is no shortage of exploitation and greed.
  • I'm not thankful for the pornography of body scans and pat downs masquerading as security in airports. (Though in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit to being extremely thankful that I'm not flying this week.)
  • I'm not thankful for a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade which stopped being about floats, marching bands, and Santa Claus and started being about the promotion of Broadway shows in NYC, every lame TV show that needs a plug, and a procession of lip-syncing pop stars performing their latest offerings in the hopes of salvaging their failing careers.
  • Speaking of self-promotion, I'm not thankful for halftime shows during Thanksgiving football games by Keith Urban and Kid Rock to promote their latest albums, tours, or ... whatever. Give me the scores and the highlights at halftime and then let's get back to the game.
  • As to the games themselves, while I'm thankful that there will once again be football played on turkey day, I am far less thankful for the teams playing it. Detroit and New England ought to be a game for about 10 minutes, as will Dallas and New Orleans. As for the Bengals vs the Jets ... I can only hope that by the time that this third lame effort occurs, crammed into the schedule in the name of TV ratings, it will find me passed out from turkey tryptophan.
  • I'm not thankful for the ads that I'm already being bombarded with this shopping season telling me that I can only make people in my life happy at Christmas by buying them jewelery or a car. (though if someone wants to exercise such extravagance for me ...)
  • I'm not even sure that I'm thankful for the Republican victory in the recent election, as they seem to be forgetting why they were sent to replace those in office almost as quickly as the Democrats who lost office forgot why they were asked to leave.
  • I'm not thankful for the cold weather that I have to deal with this time of year. While we all make noises about liking the change of seasons, the brisk chill of the winter air, and snow; it's all much prettier and more fun in a movie or on a Christmas card than it actually is while standing in it or shoveling snow.
  • Come to think of it, I'm not sure that I'm thankful for getting together with all of my friends and family for the holidays. Don't get me wrong, they're all wonderful; but getting together with some of them reminds me of all of those I will not see over this period and forces me to deal with that guilt and sadness that comes with that realization.
While there are certainly more that I could list, I think that you've gotten the idea without me listing more (though you are welcome to add to the list if you would like to). In the end, let me say that I'm sorry if any of this may have taken you a little out of your holiday spirit (though hopefully it made you chuckle a little), but I'd be lying. This after all is my self-assigned vocation as both Curmudgeon and Village Idiot ... and one that I appear to be well-suited, and indeed truly thankful for.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Toledo's Convenient Truth

Later today,there will be a public meeting held at 4PM in the Toledo City Council chambers to discuss the proposed increases in the city's Water and Sewer rates. This meeting will be to discuss the department's request last week for increased rates of 9.9% for each of the next four years for water, and 13% per year for the same period for sewers. 

Evidently the state of the over 1,100 mile system is critical, and only a major influx of cash to shore up the emergency fund of the department (and the system) will solve the crisis. I will not comment on the long-standing court case between the city and the latest EPA agreement that these yearly increases will apparently help to resolve, nor will I comment on the management expertise of a Water and Sewer department that would leave itself in such a state of physical and fiscal disrepair before declaring the current emergency situation. 

I will however, comment on the convenient timing of the announcement of its woes and this recent request. For it is curious indeed that none of this information was apparently known in the days leading up to the November election. Evidently the city and water department's efforts at negotiation with the EPA, the state of the department's budget, and the concern over imminent catastrophic failures of infrastructure were all a mystery to those running things.  

And while it appears that such budgetary surprises are the norm for The Glass City (as can be seen by the examples of the the city's budget and that of TPS), one has to wonder about the convenience of the eventual discovery and announcement of this information ... after some members of the City Council whose responsibility includes the budget, had recently completed runs for higher office. I'm certainly not accusing anyone of purposefully hiding this information or attempting to mislead voters in the days leading up to an election in order to provide political cover for long-term elected officials (at least not so you would be able to legally accuse me of), but cannot help but at least consider the possibility of it when looking at the timing of these surprisingly dire circumstances. 

I likewise cannot help but now wonder how these candidates would have fared in that recent election if what can only be considered a dereliction of duty, ignorance of their obligations, or lack fiscal responsibility would have been discovered before the vote was taken. One cannot also help but wonder at the claims made by the current Administration that all of the fault for this crisis should be laid at the feet of previous Mayors and administrations. 

This is not to say that previous department Administrators, Mayors, and City Councils should have been more forthcoming, done something, or at least have known about the impending plight of the system. It is to say however that after this much time in office, that the current Administration might have discovered the impending crisis sooner if it had done the complete city audit that it promised voters during and after the Mayor's election to office. 

One cannot help but be left therefore, with the conclusion that either the situation remained unknown and the Administration was irresponsible in not carrying out its promise, or that it was known and those in power simply ignored the pledges made to voters. One must also believe in the possibility of a rather curious and fortunate set of coincidences, or that unlike Mr. Gore's this is a rather convenient (or conveniently timed) truth.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

TFP Column: Rep Rangel's Shining Example of Real Change

After a short and unintentional vacation, I am back this week with an column in the Toledo Free Press. This week's effort was an attempt to analyze the recent election results by way of the House Ethics Panel hearing for Representative Charles Rangel

In an event with a plot only slightly more ludicrous than your basic TV wrestling show and with an equally foregone conclusion, this 20 term Congressman was convicted by the Committee on almost every charge laid before them. When this verdict is confirmed by the entire House of Representatives however, this scofflaw is likely to get a punishment equivalent to a 'time out' for an errant child. It is of little surprise that Congress is therefore held currently in such high esteem (an 11% approval rating last time that I looked) or that so many incumbent politicians lost their seats. 

But enough bad news already (if you choose to call it that). There is far more of note in this weekend's edition, including the story that Ohio's unemployment rate has finally dropped below 10% after more than a year, though Toledo's is over 11% and Lucas County's is only slightly lower. Michael Miller, editor-in-chief shares the experience of properly introducing his oldest offspring to the myth and majesty of "Star Wars", Publisher Tom Pounds discussing some of the recent issues before City Council, Lisa Renee Ward discusses the Council's predilection with declaring emergencies, and Thomas Berry discusses the potential minefield ahead of the Republican Party after their recent electoral gains. 

But there's lots to read about everything going on in NW Ohio in Toledo's largest Sunday circulation newspaper. As for me, I will simply settle for being thankful this weekend that there's a Toledo Free Press to give me the straight scoop and keep me up to date in the days leading up to turkey day.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bureaucratic Analysis Paralysis

A story in the November 12th Kansas City Star from John Hanna of the Associated Press speaks to the concern that the Kansas Board of Education is showing in regards to the incidence of bullying. 

Apparently, this concern is in response to reports in September and October of suicides nationally among gay teens who were bullied, as well as a local issue in a Hutchinson, Kansas high school where a student was tied up with a jump rope by four classmates. (A case that has since understandably been referred to the Kansas Attorney General.) As the article points out, each district is already required by a 2008 state law to have an anti-bullying policy in place, and most have adopted one from guidelines set out by the Kansas Association of School Boards; but board member Walt Chappell is now pushing the board to "set new standards" on the issue. 

How the local districts, many of which are already cash-strapped in the current economy, are to find the administrative and financial resources to fill our more paperwork for the state to track the problem is not detailed by Mr Chappell in in the article. I am not trying to make light of the problem of bullying, or to condone its perpetrators in any way. I am perfectly willing however, to make light of the concept that filling out statistical data reports or coming up with new regulations and policies does anything to resolve this or any other issue. 

In these days of smart phones with texting capabilities, instant messaging, and Facebook access around the clock; many of the methods of such torment have changed. Rather than the 'webbing' of my day (an assault perpetrated by pulling the waistband of underwear up until they tear ... from the bottom), the opportunities have increased exponentially for round-the-clock electronic harassment by those who are usually themselves social misfits. The Internet that provides us a wealth of information has also provided us with a wealth of opportunities to do evil to our fellow man. 

We must also face up to the fact that as a society, we have been so nurturing and supportive of our offspring that they are now more susceptible to such torment. Bad grades, bad colors of ink to correct papers, and (heaven forbid) actual punishment which once toughened such fragile egos; have been abandoned in altruistic efforts to promote self-esteem. 

Even corporate Human Resource people today recognize this reality when these young people enter the workforce after school, and are asked to find a never-ending series of new ways to nurture and support the self-image of these youthful employees. We should be little surprised then, that when exposed to the brutality of socialization from the least social and most unstable of their peer group (who have likewise suffered from a lack of punishment for inappropriate behave over the years for fear of damaging their self-esteem), during a period of time in their life when that process can be its most cruel, that bad things can happen. 

The fact that much of the bullying does not occur on school grounds, during school-sponsored events, or under supervision by school staff does not seem to make any difference to concerned Administrators. Any elected official (or bureaucrat) must add to the already onerous burden of paperwork in order to garner media attention, create a level of self-importance, and increase the bureaucratic budget in order to feel like they are doing their job. The fact that such additional data collection, regulation, and policy will not prevent such offenses from occurring in the future does not seem to matter either. 

Like most things where government interest is directed, showing the proper concern for the problem is as important (if not more so) than creating a solution. "Kids are hurting now and parents need relief," Mr Chappell is quoted as saying. My reply to you Mr Chappell (with use of sarcasm fully intentional) is that I'm sure that the proposed new data collection and statistical analysis will take away the pain inflicted by bullying and provide the necessary parental relief that you feel is so necessary.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Airport Insecurity

Well the holiday travel season is once more upon us, and with it the latest Transportation Security Administration abuses in the name of airport safety. This year's TSA furor arises over the passenger choice of a full body scan that allows the airport mall cops an intimate picture of you or a full body grope that allows them a pat down procedure that would be considered illegal if perpetrated by anyone other than a government representative. 

As in previous years, these increases in personal privacy abuse have passengers and potential passengers up in arms (and not for the pat down or the scan). We are told that this time travelers have finally had enough and will not put up with such personal abuse. Really? 

I remember as if it were only yesterday having just left an airport in Chicago on September 11, 2001 when we saw what had happened in New York. I remember fears that the Sears Tower or the McCormick Place convention center might be next, and the insistence of fellow employees that my boss and I drive back to Cleveland rather than risk air travel from an industry that had yet to be shut down. I remember another co-worker stranded in Juneau, Alaska for weeks while the airline industry sorted itself in the confusing days afterward. 

In the days since we have put up with an increasing level of abuse in the name of security (or the illusion thereof). X-rays of our luggage, metal detectors for our persons, special liquid containers of less than 3 ounces, and swabbing of our luggage for explosive residue are only some of the things that we have learned to put up with in the name of this questionable safety. 

Just as important however, is the time added to travel as we are herded through the system. It hasn't been so long ago that travelers could arrive at an airport less than 30 minutes before a flight and still expect to be able to board. Now we grudgingly accept that we need to arrive 1-2 hours before to clear security procedures. It likewise hasn't been all that long ago that we were able to enjoy the open air architecture at entrances to gate areas designed to please the eyes. Now we benignly accept roped off mazes that are reminiscent of livestock corrals or slaughterhouses and we the herd are funneled through an onerous and intrusive process of no proven value on our way to the government bureaucratic slaughter. 

And who gave TSA the power to continuously change the rules, treat us as livestock, and impose its will upon us? These are not elected officials who rule with the power of law passed by elected officials; they are bureaucrats who impose their will without popular consent and apparently with little or no oversight. John Pistole in fact told Congress only this week that while he understood the anger and concern of passengers over their most recent procedures, this would have no impact on their imposition. In other words, 'I know you don't like it, but I don't care!' 

Then again, why should he? Each year the abuses, restrictions, and regulations of government increase, and each year we hear the cry that this is finally enough. By the end of each holiday travel season however, the furor has died down and the lowing herd seem once more content in the corral. Even the airlines, whose business has to have been impacted by customers who now look at longer road trips before taking to the air seems to be content with increasing government interference with their profitability (though this may simply be a fear to challenge a government which has long since proven itself willing to pick winners and losers in 'private enterprise')

One in fact might well ask what additional deaths will be caused by those taken to unsafe roads to travel in an effort to avoid the safety of airline travel. Beginning with Cuban hijackers (which we almost remember fondly now) and graduating to the current crop of domestic and foreign terrorists, we have seen the freedom to travel in this country change before our eyes. The exceptional mobility of the American citizen has increasingly become a reticence to travel because of these onerous policies, and it doesn't take a tin foil hat to see that the long arm of government bureaucracy over such freedoms is favorably viewed by a ruling elite who believe they know what's best for us. 

It also doesn't take a genius to figure out that a less mobile population willing to accept an ever-growing level of government behavioral abuse is one that's easier to control. I am therefore grateful that I am no longer forced to spend the time in these Greyhounds of the Air in the process of earning a living; just as I feel fortunate that I no longer need to submit myself to the vagaries of this part of the bureaucratic mentality on a regular basis. 

And while I strenuously object to the continuing and increasing abuse of my freedom by yet another faceless bureaucracy, I recognize that I am a voice crying out in the wilderness (sorry for the Biblical reference). I likewise recognize that while the current storm over this year's latest abuse no doubt is genuine, it will die down soon enough as the majority returns to what's really important ... the finalists in "Dancing With The Stars".

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Music Hath Charms

"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." from 'The Mourning Bride' by William Congreve 

One would hardly gather from looking at me today that I was a long distance runner in my youth, and a pretty decent one. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the competition was as much about beating yourself as it was about beating the other competitors (something that I also enjoyed about golf at one point in my life)

These days it would probably take someone chasing me with a weapon that could do me significant harm before I would run three blocks, let alone three miles. And while I don't think that I was a particularly gifted runner, especially by today's standards, but I did have a trick that I used to get through me the shortness of breath, the heavy legs and feet, and the occasional bout of shin splints that I still use today. 

Long before the Walkman or Mp3 player was invented, I was able to carry music in my head while doing something else. This was beyond the condition of having a commercial jingle in my head that I couldn't shake, though I am as guilty as anyone of suffering from this as anyone else. It was an ability instead that allowed me to carry a song in my head as a distraction from what is going on to me and around me and let it go while hearing nothing but the music. In the day, two Blind Faith tunes were particularly effective, "Sea of Joy" and "Can't Find My Way Back Home". Add in the earlier song by Cream "Sunshine of Your Love", and the three miles was behind me before I knew it. 

The music has changed over the years, but the process has remained the same. Even now when I have access to the latest technology, I find myself falling back on this in moments when wearing ear buds seems inappropriate. Using music inside my head allows me to get outside of it, and outside of the often contentious situations that surround me. 

By now you are probably thinking, "interesting Tim, but what does this have to do with anything?" The connection was one that I made today when reading the newspaper (I am evidently one of the few remaining dinosaurs that does so) while listening distractedly to some political punditry being spouted on cable TV (you know, multitasking). It seems that within but a week of the preponderance of election results being announced, that the two bullies in Washington (D's and R's) have one again returned to angry rhetoric. R's: "You just wait! Now that we'll be taking power in January, we're going to show those D's what they did was wrong. Not only we will enforce our will for the next two years, but we'll get even bigger and stronger by winning in 2012." D's: "You just wait! With the R's taking power in January we're going to show everybody just how bad things were before we came along. We're not going to give back anything we gained in the last few years, and when 2012 comes around, we'll get the power we just lost back." 

Little of the rhetoric being spouted is about really fixing any of the problems confronting this country. Oh, they may try and nibble around the edges a bit; but no party, and no individual representing either party now seems to want to step up and push forward with real solutions. Meanwhile, bureaucracy will continue to grow, though perhaps at a slightly slower rate. Government spending will continue at its out of control pace and debt will be run up at a clip that would leave a shopaholic dizzy. Taxes will continue to increase and to be piled upon fees and licenses, in a confusing and confiscatory pattern designed to do little more that feed the bureaucratic Frankenstein that has been created (and cannot apparently be killed). Regulation will be piled upon legislation in a continuing effort to keep citizens cowed, knowing that with all of the rules out there, the likelihood that they are in violation of one or more is almost certain. 

Government 'as usual' is already back in Washington, because or in spite of the voters having recently spoken. What I am proposing is that we pipe a little music in to help these bureaucrats and lawmakers to get outside of their heads and back into the real business at hand. Perhaps if we could get them to forget the pain that they feel when looking at their opponents, they would find it easier to do their real jobs. Perhaps if we could get them to stop feeling the pain of raising money and running for office again, legislators could find the time to read the legislation that they're voting on before they have to do it. Perhaps if we could get them to stop worrying about competing with each other and simply run the course, they could actually remember why we sent them to DC in the first place. Perhaps if we could lighten the mood of bureaucrats wading through 78,000 pages of Federal Register regulations they could use a little common sense in dealing with people rather than rules. 

I would therefore like to install speakers in Congress and all of the bureaucratic offices in Washington, in the hopes that we could use music to soothe the savage breast and help to distract these folks from their non-stop encroachment on what's left of freedom and liberty in this country. (Besides, they can justify the whole thing as part of the economic stimulus.) If that doesn't work, with the technology already in place we can pipe in some Enya to put them to sleep and keep them out of trouble, or some Bjork tunes to drive them screaming from their respective buildings. 

If we can't provide them with some peace and sanity through the use of music, perhaps we can provide ourselves some by keeping them out of trouble for at least a brief period. (I apologize for the lateness of today's posting, but the piece I originally wrote ended up going to the Kansas City Star as an op-ed submission ... with no guarantee of publication, I might add. If it doesn't get used however, you will probably find it updated and here soon.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Birthday Marine Corp

Originally formed as two battalions of Continental Marines on this date back in 1775, the United States Marine Corps has continuously and honorably served this country for the last 235 years. 

Rather than regale you with information that I have previously detailed in this blog, I will refer to some previous postings that I have done on the subject of the Corp as I continue. They include one on the recently opened Marine Corp Museum in Quantico, VA that I was able to visit while being privileged to attend a reunion of WWII Marine veterans that was held at that base. 

Another stop during that memorable trip was to the original Marine Barracks (first used in 1801, and one of the few structures in Washington not damaged during the British occupation of Washington in the War of 1812). On this occasion, I was equally lucky to be able to listen to the President's own Marine Corp Drum and Bugle Corp and watch a truly intelligent, gifted, and talented group of soldiers as they performed the silent cadence of the Evening Parade. Almost all of the musician / soldiers have advanced college degrees, and they compete constantly for the honor of serving. 

Many of those that we talked to in the Silent Drill Platoon had recently returned from front line service overseas. Without fail however, every one of the Marines we talked to that evening was happy to share the history of the barracks, the ceremony, and the Marine Corp with each and every one of us; and to impart some part of the dedication that they had to those of us who had never served. 

As the bugler played 'Taps' at the end of the performance, anyone who was not moved by the especially emotional nature of that ceremony in that place simply had no heart. Of course no history of the Corp would be complete without a mention of the very special, and to me very personal story of "Lost Battalion", Company A of the 10th Amphibious Tractor Battalion (in which my father served during WWII). The story of their rather remarkable days in the Pacific is well worth remembering as part of the history of service of the Marines. So to all those jar heads (for the high and tight haircut), devil dogs (for the Marine Corp bulldog mascot) and leathernecks (for the leather collar that was part of their Revolutionary War uniform) out there; let me send out a proper birthday greeting:


Will Republicans Be Good Winners?

"There's nothing to winning really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, and agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever." 
- Alfred Hitchcock 

I thought about this on the day after the election, as Republicans and Conservatives (they are overlapping, but not congruent terms) were celebrating their electoral victory. Don't get me wrong, I was happy that they won (Conservatives, not necessarily Republicans). Unlike the president and most of the 'slipstream media' (so named because they appear to be dropping further and further behind in the wake as a legitimate news source), I did in fact take this victory as a repudiation of the policies (not necessarily the people) of the last two years. 

It certainly appeared that the American people in general and the Tea Party Movement members in particular were fed up with a government interested in passing sweeping omnibus legislation without knowledge of its contents and against the strong objections of voters. Since this is a representative republic, those voters appeared more than willing to reject representatives who don't represent, and turned out elected officials who chose party solidarity over meeting their job description. I was also pleased with the humble tone that at least that prospective Speaker of the House John Boehner took in speaking about the victory. It actually appeared that he understood the limited license that had just been granted, for this was not as much an endorsement of the Republicans as it was a repudiation of the Democratic agenda of the last two years. While many of the Democrats do not appear to be good losers in this contest, I wonder how many Republicans will be good winners. 

This is not about turning out more Democrats (including the president) in two years as the current minority leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell, seems to believe. Neither is this about running up a score in either the House or the Senate. Mr McConnell seems to be confusing elections with some form of athletic contest where the concern of those on the sidelines is nothing more than which team wins. While I am sure that there are some in the country who may believe that way, recent elections have shown them to be the minority. How else do you explain the regular turn over of Congress in recent years? The American people by and large are not fanatics for one side or another in the game (and are increasingly looking for a 3rd alternative), but instead want government to serve their needs. 

True, there is certainly some debate and confusion as to what those needs are, how they should be served, and what role government should play; but that's what's really being contested in recent elections. Republicans, after years of laboring in the minority, got their chance to set the agenda in 1994 when after writing their "Contract For America" they took control of the House and Senate and proceeded to squander it. 

After a few months of grandiose speeches and token efforts, things went back to business as usual and government continued to grow in scope, scale, and level of personal encroachment. Republicans sent to Washington not only stood by and watched it happen, they often caused it. They got the White House back as well in 2000, which you think would have allowed them to do what voters actually sent them to do, but the budget and government continued to grow and become ever more intrusive. 

Little surprise then that by 2006 voters had gotten fed up with more of the same and turned them out, and by 2008 had repudiated their lack of principles decisively. Now only two years later, they find themselves returning to control of at least one House of Congress. What will they do and how long will they do it for? 

Will Republicans stand on the principles that they espoused in campaign speeches while seeking office and gaining the favor of Conservative and Independent voters, or return the the parasitic policies that both they and the Democrats seem to favor; regardless of the increasing damage that it does to the taxpayer host? Will they attempt to walk back some of the over-reaching of government that both parties are responsible for over recent years or make merely token efforts that can be noted by the media and pointed to in their next re-election campaign? 

As they consider these questions, as well as their duties and responsibilities, Republicans (and Democrats as well) might do well to remember the words of long-time Alabama football coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant: 

"When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don't repeat it."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dancing With An American Idol On The Jersey Shore

It's always a relief to see an election cycle end, not because of who wins or loses the races; but because we don't have to watch and listen to the "half-truths, mis-truths, and outright lies" of political candidate ads any longer. Of course, then I remember about what's left on television, and my relief is short-lived. Actually, I found a number of curious comparisons here when looking at politics and popular culture:
  • Many of those eligible to vote know who is on 'American Idol', 'Dancing with the Stars', 'Jersey Shore', and the flood of 'wives' programs from New Jersey, the South, and Orange County. Far fewer knew the cast of characters on their local ballots.
  • Many Americans know the names and life stories of the judges on Idol and 'America's Got Talent', but far fewer can come up with even the names of an equal number of Supreme Court Justices.
  • Far too many people believe that the level of civil political discourse in this country is defined by 'The View', 'The O'Reilly Factor', and 'The Sean Hannity Show'. They believe that shouting down ones opponents, refusing to let people complete the answers to questions, and walking off of the set qualify as good interview techniques.
  • People are often disillusioned and disappointed when public political debate does not turn into a bad episode of 'The Jerry Springer Show'.
  • Candidates and TV shows are both defined, not by the quality of the characters or the level of the writing; but on how outrageous, controversial, and manipulative they are.
  • Far more people seem to get their news perspective from parody shows like 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report' on The Comedy Channel than do from network news.
I have nothing against any of the shows or networks listed above, but I have to say that I am grateful for the variety of programming on cable that allows me to avoid such programming. 

Quite frankly, I have never seen television as a medium that did well at providing information. Entertainment sure, but information ... not so much. And even the entertainment value of television has taken a nose-dive in recent years. Information and entertainment are now chopped into discreetly defined segments that can be fit between the advertising that pays for it. Any news story or part of the plot that doesn't fit in these visual slices ends up being left out of the story, even if it makes things more difficult to understand. 

To add to the mixed metaphors here, imagine television as a sports league. When there were only a few franchises, only the best of the best rose to prominence in their game and got their chance. When the league discovers that there is a lot of money to be made out there however and add teams at a frightening rate in an attempt to cash in while they can (like any other evil corporation), it inevitably leads to a dilution of the limited talent pool available. 

Eventually, such attenuation means that we end up with what most professional sports leagues like to call 'parity', but which we know really means a level of mediocrity that most of us watching find more than a little objectionable. Cable has now given us hundreds of franchises attempting to dip into the limited talent pool of writers, directors, and actors that exist. When they reach the shallow end of that pool (which they appear to have done some time back), they are forced create celebrities out of people whose only real talent was convincing someone to put them on TV in the first place to fill the void. There are no plots, no scripts, and no performances worthy of note; only bad behavior, worse hygiene, and faux tragedy to entertain the masses. 

Owners of the Roman Empire's coliseums would be proud of the circuses and bloodsport that we have turned cable into, reveling in these thinly veiled and badly acted gladiatorial contests (and that's before I get started on wrestling). Politics has begun to show the same decided lack of talent when seeking its principal performers. While there are some legitimate artists remaining in the field (for which we should be truly grateful), the sheer scope and scale of government at every level has begun to dilute the talent pool. 

In truth, many of those with any real talent have simply abandoned the auditions; finding what the process has become too intrusive, personally abusive, and to ungraciously fickle to make it worth bothering with. While some with a real gift or an overwhelming desire to participate remain, many of them simply find other ways to express their genius, and abandon the political venue to the more venial and power hungry of the inferior players. 

These elections and shows are now often filled with flawed individuals who do not deserve the limelight or the applause. Their lack of ability is exceeded only by their demands for diva status; and once illuminated on these public stages, they prove themselves mostly talentless and particularly unattractive. Yet we continue watch, helplessly staring, often without any care or understanding of the plot or the meaning of the drama unfolding before us. 

Perhaps like watching a traffic accident, we are simply shocked or fascinated by the appalling spectacle and simply cannot take our eyes away. On the other hand, like many other times when sitting on the couch at home, perhaps we've simply been unable to reach the remote yet to change the channel.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

TFP Column: Guilty As Charged

I always try to read the comments about my columns in the Toledo Free Press (even when they are not exactly about my column). Last week's reference to the Island of Misfit Toys from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" earned me one that stuck with me however, and forced me to evaluate the pieces that I do for the TFP. This in turn lead to this week's guilty admission. 

My column was posted early this week (which means it will probably only be in the electronic edition), so I can't tell you what will be in the rest of the edition; but I would bet on a recap of all of the local elections and some insight by many as to what it will all mean to NW Ohio. It's getting colder out there, and the leaves are falling; so I would ignore the weather and the yard work and curl up with Toledo's largest Sunday circulation newspaper, the Toledo Free Press.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How Much Hope For Change Is There Now?

Just so you understand the question, I will let you in on the fact that I actually wrote this in the days leading up to the election, not after its results were published. You see, regardless of whether the Republicans gain control of one House of Congress or both, of whether the Democrats retain control of the Senate and the White House, and if Libertarians or traditional two party candidates are swept in on the tide of the Tea Party movement; I believe that little will change in Washington.
  • Will the EPA be barred from regulating the emission of carbon byproducts by everything from power plants and automobiles to animals?
  • Will the National Education Association be prohibited from pushing national education standards on local school districts?
  • Will the IRS be prohibited from imposing penalties and interest rates that if perpetrated by a private sector business would be considered illegal and usury?
  • Will Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) continue to be allowed to pick and choose which laws on the books that it will enforce?
  • Will health care reform (which does not reform health care, only health care insurance) itself be reformed?
  • Will the government turn off the printing presses (even briefly) cranking out money to stave off the inflation that has to come if they don't?
  • Will financial reform, which has done little to control the abuses of Wall Street firms creating our next generation of Cabinet secretaries and does nothing to correct the abuses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; but has provided banks with opportunities to impose new fees and charges, be allowed to stand as is?
  • Will Congress stop passing laws more complex than the design of a nuclear weapon and with more pages than the Bible?
  • Will any Congress pass legislation to determine the Constitutional authority for a law before voting on it?
  • Will members of Congress (new or incumbent) even read the Constitution that they swear to protect and defend?
You see, though we live in a representative republic (not a democracy as so many believe), in fact most of the voters in this country choose not to pick those who will represent them. Even if we use the numbers of presidential election years, the percentage of eligible voters exercising their voting rights rarely rises above 35%. Even if a candidate were to gain 60% of those votes, they would only be elected by some 21% of eligible voters, hardly a mandate to rule.

Other countries using the democratic voting process have in the past mandated that the entire population vote (Australia fines those who fail to), but such a philosophy tells us that the only way to protect our freedom through government is to take away the freedom of whether to choose its members or not. Totalitarian governments solve this problem much more simply by making sure that the selection of candidates is limited to those the government has already chosen and making the vote is a foregone conclusion. 

As some of the above questions point to however, regardless of the party in power, the bureaucracy that actually rules remains the same. Unelected bureaucratic moles responsible to no voter and given little oversight by our elected officials, will still be making and enforcing rules that all will be told to follow regardless of the 'laws' that are passed. If you doubt me, ask yourself what you have come into contact with on the day that you read this that is not regulated by our government. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the clothes we wear all fall under federal guidelines. Everything from the cars we drive and the roads we drive on, to the people we get to vote on are controlled and regulated. 

Tell me that government does not control all, prayer for example, and I will ask you to try and pray publicly in a government building and discover the result. Tell me that capitalism still provides us a free-market economy, and I will ask you what part of the economy is not regulated or mandated by a faceless government agency. 

Even elections that we use as a shining example of our freedom are regulated. In many states only members of the two parties can be on the ballot without special petition initiatives; except through the difficult process of write-in candidacy. Primaries for those parties are held and regulated by the government (and paid for by the taxpayers); which mandates who gets what ballot and which candidates you get to vote for. And while some of the restrictions of campaign financing have been relaxed or removed, there are still a great many more in place to control how the game is played. 

I hate to appear any more cynical than I am (difficult, I know), but even the most naive of us who has done any study on this knows that the odds of the game are more than a little crooked and that the odds always favor the house winning. 

The good news however, is that we have managed to make it through yet another election cycle without violence breaking out in the streets. Intimidation is still only limited to subtle coercion, selective inattention where the truth is concerned, and that while freedom of speech politically is still a closely monitored 'right', the economy was aided by the vast sums of money spent in advertising and promoting candidates. (Could this be considered the real economic stimulus of 2010?) Regardless of what we end up with, we will all have gotten one thing; the illusion that the process works and the "will of the people" has been done. 

We also have a hope, that this time perhaps one or two good people will survive the process, will not be corrupted by the power that they are about to assume in Washington DC, and will at least attempt to make some change to the growing encroachment of government on the few remaining freedoms left to individuals in this country. How much change they will actually be able to make is yet to be seen.