Posts Tagged politics

Political perspective

US Capitol“Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.”

I guess it’s good to know that some things never change. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote the above description for his book Profiles in Courage, which was published in 1956. As we wait to experience the fallout of the Sequester, it seemed especially timely.

Kennedy could have easily been describing the political madness of 2013. The “necessities of election and accomplishment” seem to take precedence over government.

As Kennedy says, that kind of political life is indeed expensive and mechanistic. Candidates have to spend millions and billions of dollars on ads in a seemingly never-ending election cycle, inviting special interests and rich backers to gain undue influence. Every appearance and statement is tightly choreographed, making our representatives seem like walking lists of talking points.

Of course, things have changed since 1956. Kennedy goes on to mention the Cold War and how the rigid ideology it spawned was also affecting American political discourse. It’s also hard to compare the party dynamics of the 1950s Congress to today’s without doing some more research. Perhaps another day.

Regardless, the government Kennedy worked in, as both a Congressman and Senator, and later led as President, was able to muddle through several international crises and the Civil Rights Movement. Have our leaders done everything perfectly over the past 57 years? Nope. Yet the government, and the United States itself, is still here.

Political strife may have reached an all-time high, but parties and individuals have been arguing with each other since this country was founded. Just look at the stories of the eight Senators Kennedy profiles, or watch Lincoln.

Past Congresses have had to enact the founding principles of the United States, fight wars, and bring about social change. All this Congress had to do was pass a budget. Its members may not like each other, and they may need to get their priorities in order, but that didn’t stop their predecessors.

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Weather can’t stop the Postal Service, but government cutbacks can?

United_States_Postal_Service_LogoAs I sit here typing while watching snow persistently fall, I can’t help but think about the people that have to work to make mine and everyone else’s lives happen even when it gets inconvenient. You’ve heard the mail carrier’s mantra, right? They may not be out delivering mail in the Northeast today, but if we were expecting slightly less than two-to-five feet of snow, they probably would be.

That’s why I find it so ridiculous that we can’t agree to fund the Postal Service, and that this logistical marvel is cutting Saturday mail delivery because of that. We may be in the midst of a rather heated federal spending debate, but really? Even this is up for debate?

Even postmaster general and stereotypical corrupt political appointee Patrick R. Donohue has pointed out, mail may be cheap, but e-mail is free. However, as long as we live in a physical world, we’ll still need a way to move physical objects from one place to another.

I’m not being sentimental: until someone perfects Star Trek-like transporter technology, there will literally be no way to send a magazine or a college care package anywhere with a computer.

Also, considering that Chinese hackers can seemingly take down the New York Times at will, I’m not too comfortable with online banking.

The Postal Sevice is one of those modern conveniences that people take for granted, and maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps, because they sit in front of their computers, tablets, and smartphones all day, and not their mailboxes, they assume they can do without it.

Which is why a blizzard happening days after the postmaster general announced an end to Saturday letter service is quite fortuitous. Massive power outages are expected, so all of that hyper-efficient 21st century communication technology will soon be useless. The Internet isn’t sounding so superior right now.

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First world problems

So I’ve encountered a new phrase called “first world problems.” I have a problem with this phrase.

It seems to mean something that really isn’t a big deal, like having to prepare a presentation or being peeved that the barista put cream in your Starbucks concoction instead of milk. You know, things that don’t have to do with subsistence.

I see what people are getting at here. We all get wrapped up in our lives, make mountains out of mole hills and forget how lucky we are to live the way we do. That’s fine.

Checking your whining with a phrase like “first world problems” is a little obnoxious, though. It sounds like the person is saying “I know I shouldn’t be complaining about this trivial thing, but I will,” or “See how conscious I am of other people’s suffering?”

Both are very “first world” things to do. I’m a huge fan of irony, but too much of a good thing is still a problem. Drawing an implied comparison between oneself and a starving African child or a smog-choked Chinese factory worker doesn’t make a person sound smart or sensitive, it just makes them sound like they are trying to license their whining.

The phrase “first world problems” is also etymologically dubious. Do you ever notice why people never talk about the second world? It’s because the terms first world and second world were coined during the Cold War to describe the United States and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, respectively. Any countries not within either the U.S. or Soviet sphere were referred to as the third world.

So maybe we should stop using outdated political terms to label our trivial complaints. It’s perfectly fine to complain, even if you know that someone else would be happy to be in your position. It’s not a big deal, and certainly doesn’t merit a snarky term like “first world problems.”

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History, uranium particles and all

Manhattan Project Trinity testAccording to a recent NPR piece, certain parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory are on their way to becoming a National Park. In case you slept through high school history, Los Alamos was the key site of the Manhattan Project; the park would include the building where the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was assembled.

Obviously, Manhattan Project National Park could generate controversy, and where there’s controversy, there’s Congress. The bill to create the park was shot down in the House of Representatives in September.

“We’re talking about the devastation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — hundreds of thousands killed, $10 trillion Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons which today threaten the existence of the world — and this is something we should celebrate?” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said at the time.

Kucinich may have (gloriously) tried to impeach President George W. Bush, but this time he’s not seeing the big picture. Aside from the obvious logistical issues inherent in opening a former nuclear test, and current weapons lab, to the public, Los Alamos would be an incredibly valuable educational tool.

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II were the most destructive weapons ever unleashed by humankind, and constant recognition of that fact is what has kept the United States and other countries from using them again.

Seventy-one years after Pearl Harbor, Americans still remember World War II with reverence and respect for the people who fought and died. Ignoring how it ended because it might not make the country look good would be a bit silly.

The bombs may have killed thousands of people and started the Cold War, but they are still a part of our history. So while we shouldn’t celebrate the deaths of our former enemies, we should acknowledge them.

If it is true to the story of the Manhattan Project, this park should do just that. It won’t depict mad scientists gleefully working on a weapon of mass destruction, but the most brilliant minds of a generation trying to end a war while expanding humanity’s scientific knowledge, and knowing exactly what they were doing.

This is the kind of thing that sounds like a political or moral issue only if you don’t think about it. American national parks commemorate the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and expose the exploitation of slaves and sweatshop workers.

In fact, there are already publicly-funded museums that already discuss the atomic bomb. The United States Miliatry Academy’s museum includes a replica “Fat Man” bomb, like the one dropped on Nagasaki. Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, is one display at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

History isn’t pretty, and sanitizing it won’t change that. Atomic weapons killed many people, but they were the weapons that ended the Second World War. Trying to teach people about those events has nothing to do with glorifying them, it’s just an acknowledgment of the truth.

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Christmas truce

Santa ClausLike Black Friday and red and green M&Ms, the annual “War on Christmas” has become a holiday tradition. Like fanatical Civil War re-enactors, the two sides array themselves for battle every year because they can’t actually kill each other.

On one side, there are the non-Christian heathens and the lawyers and municipal governments that defend them by removing Nativity scenes and Christmas trees from town squares and shopping malls. On the other side are the defenders of the faith, most of whom work for Fox News.

For anyone of a non-Christian persuasion, it’s difficult to see why pundits like Bill O’Reilly get so riled up every year (even though “Papa Bear” sort of has the word “riled” in his name). It’s not that there’s a problem with Christmas, it’s just hard to sympathize with a group that is in the majority when it claims it is being oppressed.

The PC crowd can get out of control, but the current situation is an accurate reflection of American demographics. The majority of Americans celebrate Christmas, but not everyone does. That means, once in awhile, someone might not want to see Santa Claus, or Jesus.

The other side of the coin shows that, for a country that ostensibly separates church and state, Christianity gets plenty of privileges. Christmas is a federal holiday, and there is a very ostentatious Christmas tree in the White House.

The season also lasts for almost two months: This past Halloween, I saw Santa at the local mall, talking to kids toting trick-or-treat bags.

Knowledge of Christianity also seeps into the non-Christian consciousness very easily. Everyone has Christian friends, or learns about some facet of the religion in school; it’s almost impossible to study history or literature without that knowledge.

On the other hand, many Americans go through their lives without really knowing anyone who doesn’t worship Jesus, and they only learn about alternative beliefs through their own curiosity or through special programs in more enlightened public schools.

With that in mind, it’s hard to see how saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” can really be a threat to Christians’ enjoyment of their holiday. The generals fighting the “War on Christmas” just don’t understand how good they have it.

Jon Stewart put it best when he said that people like Bill O’Reilly “have confused loss of absolute power with oppression.” The simple fact is that some people don’t celebrate Christmas, and that really shouldn’t be the concern of the people who do.

It really isn’t that big of a deal: If someone wants to say “Merry Christmas” or erect an elaborate Nativity scene, they’re entitled to. They just need to remember that they are not the only people in the world, and to not take that reality personally.

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The 2012 election is over… Now what?

Obama victory speech 2012If anyone actually reads this, sorry for the missed posts. It’s been a busy week.

I was very pleased by the results of Tuesday’s election, but they do put the country in an interesting place. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Obama is still president, the Democrats still control the Senate, and the Republicans still control the House, so America’s billionaires apparently wasted their money. So how do we keep from repeating the mistakes of the past four years?

Bipartisanship seems to be the key, and it is, but not all the time. If both parties put aside their differences, forgot the ugliness of this decidedly ugly campaign, and compromised to create practical policies, it would be a major achievement for rationality. However, it might not solve every problem.

I’m a fan of Matt Taibbi, but when he wrote, on the morning of the election, that there was essentially no difference between the candidates, I had to disagree.

“When push comes to shove, we all should know most Americans want the same things, but just disagree on how to get there, which is why it should be okay to not panic if the other party wins,” Taibbi wrote on the morning of November 6. That’s true, but sometimes Americans disagree. What then?

The vitriol and plain bullshit slung by both politicians and the media in this election was awful, not just because it made compromise harder, but because it obscured real issues that Americans genuinely disagree about.

Could a woman really believe that Romney had her interests in mind, even after he talked about banning abortion, or after his “binders full of women” comment? If one of the two main presidential candidates make a threat to one’s rights a part of his platform, there is no reason to assume that he will not act on that. Otherwise, why bother having elections?

So the solution to America’s problems isn’t blind compromise. Politicians and their constituents should stop the name calling, and generally recognize their opponents’ humanity, but both sides have the right and obligation to try to enact their policies.

Some might argue that this is what caused the ongoing deadlock in Washington: both parties pushed to get what they wanted done, and tried equally hard to obstruct their opponent.

However, we just had an election, where the majority of the country chose a Democratic president, that seems to point things in a certain direction. The Democrats shouldn’t ignore the Republican constituency, but the Republicans need to acknowledge that, in the White House and Senate races, they lost.

After a major Republican upset in the 2010 midterm elections, Mitch McConnell said that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Someone really needs to call the Republican party on this counterproductive behavior.

When Mitt Romney is accusing President Obama of being anti-coal, and the President is accusing the former governor of being a corporate raider, some people think that all the parties care about is defeating each other. However, we need to remember that this all started with the Republicans and, now that they’ve lost the presidential race, they need to be stopped from continuing to obstruct the functions of government.

A maxim of journalism is that there are always at least two sides to every story. That’s true, but not every side is equal. In politics, compromise is important, but the job of politicians is to serve the people, and the people have spoken.

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Political campaigns: What is real and what is garbage

Salman Rushdie knows a lot about the power of ideas. His novel The Satanic Verses so enraged mullahcracy that he fatwa was issued against him. He spent the next several years of his life with a death warrant on his head. Interestingly though, Rushdie had an opportunity to silence the hatred, just a little bit, and he turned it down.

When a Pakistani film called International Guerillas came to the U.K., the British Board of Film Classification refused to let it be shown, and rightfully so. The film depicted Rushdie as a decadent hedonist and focused on the attempts of courageous defender of the faith to kill him (God ultimately finished him off).

Rushdie disagreed with the BBFC, though. He thought the film should be seen for the “distorted, incompetent piece of trash that it is.” In his memoir, Rushdie wrote that it was better to trust people to tell when something is bad, and deny it the “glamour of taboo.”

If only politics was simple enough for mere righteousness to prevail. Throughout this election, voters have been exposed to plenty of distorted, incompetent pieces of trash, but things are still pretty close.

I’ll use my home state of Connecticut as an example. The senate race between Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon has been deadlocked almost from the beginning, but I can’t figure out why.

The Nutmeg State definitely has its share of Republicans, but it has always been a solid blue state. It’s reasonable to expect McMahon to get some conservative supporters, but the state isn’t evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Instead, McMahon’s success seems to stem from her ability to run negative ads. Connecticut televisions are being bombarded by ads about Murphy’s poor attendance record in Congress and his personal financial troubles.

All of it is distorted or complete garbage, but the citizens of Connecticut are having trouble figuring that out. That’s because, while it’s easy to think n black and white when it comes to fiction, real life is a bit more complicated.

Murphy did not attend 80 percent of his committee hearings but he does have a 97 percent voting record, and it’s not like he’s lazy. He spends most of his time actually visiting the district he represents, something that gets glossed over when you try to reduce a man’s political career to a sound byte.

The same is true of Murphy’s personal life. McMahon asserts that Murphy is irresponsible because he was sued for missing mortgage payments, and that he negotiated a sweetheart deal with Webster Bank, trading federal bailout money for a good mortgage rate.

The fact is that Murphy paid back his creditors, and that no sweetheart deal ever occurred. Yet McMahon keeps running the ads. Webster asked her campaign to stop accusing the bank of corruption, but McMahon still brought up the phantom mortgage deal in a debate with Murphy.

This past week, Murphy finally pulled ahead in the polls with a six point lead. What took so long? It seems patently obvious that McMahon is attacking Murphy to distract Connecticut voters, or at least that she has spent the entire campaign on these attacks without discussing the issues. Yet it has been neck and neck until now.

Rushdie was willing to trust the British public with his reputation, to know that the people who were attacking him were wrong. That’s a standard that American voters would do well to emulate.

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