The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, August 28, 2009


Suspicion of Guilt Is Not Proof of Guilt

Initially, joy flowed freely when, against all hope, Jaycee Lee Dugard – kidnapped from her family at age eleven, eighteen years earlier – was found alive less than two hundred miles from her childhood home. Unfortunately, joy quickly turned to horror as details emerged of Dugard’s existence during those eighteen years.

After abducting her in 1991, convicted sex offender Phillip Garrido placed Dugard inside a fenced-off area, located in deep woods behind his suburban home. There, Garrido constructed a compound consisting of tents and crude outbuildings, an environment that authorities likened to camping out.

Worse still, Dugard became Garrido’s sex slave. The man raped her repeatedly, ultimately fathering two children with her, the first when Dugard was a mere fourteen years old. Like their mother, Garrido forced the girls to live in the compound, bereft of all contact with the outside world.

Garrido has admitted to kidnapping Dugard. It is highly likely he will now spend most or all of his remaining life imprisoned and/or institutionalized. Anyone’s heart would go out to Dugard for what she has endured. She lost the entire teen years of her childhood as well as her innocence at far too young an age. The same is true for her daughters. It seems almost inconceivable that slavery could still be possible in contemporary America.

Regrettably, the horror does not even end here. Other members of Dugard’s family also ended up enslaved because of her disappearance. Dugard’s mother Terry became enslaved to her grief. For ten years after her daughter’s disappearance, Terry took vacation from work at Christmas and the anniversary of the abduction as a time for remembrance. She could do little more to pass this time than weep inconsolably.

The grief and recrimination destroyed their marriage, according to her husband. The pair separated some years ago and now live apart.

Terry’s husband, Carl Probyn, Jaycee’s stepfather, also wound up enslaved – in his case by suspicion. He was the one who saw the girl abducted as she waited at her school bus stop. He saw her pulled into a car, screaming, and watched it race away.

Probyn recalls Jaycee was at the top of a hill and he at the bottom when the kidnapping occurred. He said he pedaled furiously in a vain attempt to reach/follow her but his mountain bike was no match for a speeding car.

As the only witness, both local police and the FBI targeted Probyn on suspicion of involvement in Jaycee’s abduction. Both groups interrogated him repeatedly. Authorities never brought formal charges against Probyn but they never completed dropped the investigation either.

The Probyns were robbed of Jaycee’s childhood too. “He had her longer than we did,” Carl said wistfully at one point, referring to Garrido. Both parents appear to have legitimately grieved as Jaycee’s loss. Yet while Terry found respect and sympathy from the community in her mourning, Carl knew only too well that some on the police force as well as some of his neighbors privately felt placing him behind bars was the best way to ensure such justice as was possible for the little girl missing and presumed dead.

Legally, suspicion of guilt is not proof of guilt. Yet it is only human nature to desire punishment and restitution and this often exacerbates the former into the latter for many people. The more heinous and shocking the crime, the more readily people are willing to accept suspicion as proof. (i.e. “The police wouldn’t be checking it if there was wasn’t something fishy going on there.”)

“I've gone through hell, I mean I'm a suspect up until yesterday,” Carl Probyn told reporters. If Garrido had not undergone some type of religious revelation several years ago that caused him to act more recklessly and betray himself, Probyn might well have remained enslaved by suspicion for the rest of his life. It is an interesting side lesson to take from this part happy/part repulsive story of a family ripped apart only to find reunion years later.

Because they stand suspected of terrorism, many of us fear any of the detainees currently residing at Guantanamo Bay as inherently too violent and dangerous for housing in U.S. prisons or affording the rights associated with civil trials. In some high-profile cases, these may well be legitimate concerns but it is just as valid to wonder how many Carl Probyn types are among the lesser-known figures. We know they exist because U.S. authorities have already found and released some previously.

Like Probyn, these individuals wound up robbed of their families, their countries, and their lives for years without earning a dreg of our sympathy because our fear and suspicions engulfed and overwhelmed our sense of justice. The Dugard case demonstrates the greatest wrong which can come from this is to allow the truly guilty to continue walking about without penalty and the genuinely innocent to continue suffering at their hands.

It is time to unshackle the enslaved by unshackling ourselves from our worst suspicions and fears.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pencils Down

Moon Walk, True Compass, Test Pilot . . . or All of the Above?

They say deaths always happen in threes. That seemed to be the case this week. As I considered the trio of passages, I found each one raised its own set of questions for me.

On Monday, it was not a new death but rather a clarification about a previous one. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled the death of pop star Michael Jackson as a homicide rather than an accident. Forensic tests found a mixture of the powerful anesthetic propofol and several other sedatives combined to cause Jackson’s death. This puts more doubts than ever before on Doctor Conrad Murray, hired by Jackson as a personal physician shortly before his death.

Murray feely admits using propofol nightly, administered by intravenous drip, for six weeks to treat Jackson’s insomnia. He claimed to have begun reducing the dose only a few days before Jackson died, fearing the singer was becoming addicted to the powerful drug.

His strategy was successful for a day or two but on June 25, nothing seemed to work. A Valium tablet and multiple injections of lorazepam and midazolam still left Jackson awake and agitated. Finally, Murray gave Jackson propofol and the singer fell asleep. Murray claimed in the time he took him to go to the bathroom, Jackson stopped breathing.

A finding of homicide only means “the hands of another” person caused Jackson’s death; it does not automatically imply a crime was committed. Nevertheless, Murray remains the target of a manslaughter probe by the Los Angeles police. Did Murray really kill Jackson or merely assist him in what was, in many ways, the singer’s lifelong journey as an adult to escape the tormenting demons of his childhood by any means necessary?

Working against Murray are his many lies and evasions with authorities. On the other hand, he apparently tried to wean Jackson off a dangerous drug and administered it on the fatal day only when other, less potent drugs proved ineffective. Murray told detectives that Jackson had repeatedly demanded/begged for propofol as the only thing that would let him sleep. He even jokingly referred to the white liquid drug as his “milk.”

It would be true to form for Jackson to equate a dangerous anesthetic typically used only in hospitals with a warm glass of milk. In his 1988 autobiography, Moon Walk, Jackson described a childhood ruined by his own stardom as well as abuse suffered at the hands of his authoritative father. Jackson’s attempts to unmake/remake his past were often so extreme, such as his frequent surgeries, as to be detrimental to his reputation and health.

Murray was a doctor, sworn to his Hippocratic Oath, but he was also Jackson’s paid employee. At what point did “do no harm” cross over from granting his patient’s/boss’s requests for relief to refusing them in his best interest, especially when that patient’s view of reality might be considerably warped?

The second death, a new one this time, came to us Wednesday morning with the news of Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing. Kennedy and Jackson are strangely alike in combining great achievement in their chosen professions with poor choices and scandals in their personal lives. No matter exactly what happened that night, no matter how much time passes, Kennedy will never completely escape history’s condemnation for Chappaquiddick and rightly so.

Yet his accomplishments in the Senate deserve genuine respect, even if all do not necessarily agree with their ends. A long-time champion of the poor, working class, underprivileged, and – more recently – the uninsured, Kennedy’s son claims he “authored more pieces of major legislation than any other United States Senator” and this could well be true. His government legacy includes health insurance for children of the working poor, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Meals on Wheels, abortion clinic access, family leave, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Medicare prescription drug benefits.

Kennedy’s forthcoming autobiography, to be published this fall, is called True Compass, doubtless a reference to his love for sailing. Already nicknamed “the Lion of the Senate,” President Obama went one step further in eulogizing Kennedy. “An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.”

The greatest? Really?

Unquestionably, Kennedy won greatest respect toward the end of his political career. It has been common practice for many progressives to scoff at long-serving Senators, often Southerners, such as Robert Byrd of West Virginia and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, seeing them as antediluvian roadblocks to advancement that have outlived their usefulness.

First elected to the Senate in 1962, Kennedy is now junior only to Byrd and Thurmond as the third longest serving Senator in U.S. history. If others serving so long is no good for the South or nation as a whole, what was it about a New England locale that made Kennedy’s unassailable representation of Massachusetts for nearly forty-seven years not only acceptable but also commendable?

It is arguable that Kennedy’s achievements over his extended career versus these other Senators is the bright line distinguishing him from them and this logic has merit. Nonetheless, it does undercut the old saw “He/she has been there too long” as a valid criticism for others. Is the thing for which Kennedy is most celebrated the thing for which he ought to be most condemned? If not, does this make Kennedy the ultimate argument against term limits at any level of government?

The third death fell between Jackson and Kennedy, occurring on Tuesday and belonging to a man whose fame is less celebrated and ubiquitous. Kennedy’s obituary noted that Harvard expelled a young Ted in 1951 for cheating. Kennedy arranged for a classmate to take a freshman Spanish exam for him. He should have gone to see Stanley Kaplan instead.

Kaplan was a career educator who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and second in his class from New York City College. He dreamt of going to medical school but the fact he was Jewish and had attended a public college proved insurmountable obstacles for him in 1939. This experience made him an early admirer of standardized tests. Kaplan was sure such a test would have demonstrated to the medical schools that spurned him that he was actually superior to many students from prestigious, moneyed private universities.

As standardized tests became common and more important in determining admissions, the stress associated with taking them became overpowering for many students. Kaplan saw an opportunity and began teaching test preparation – a combination of tips on what subject matter to stress as well as general test-taking strategies.

In his 2001 autobiography, Test Pilot – How I Broke Testing Barriers for Millions of Students and Caused a Sonic Boom in the Business of Education, Kaplan described his early fights with the College Boards, who insisted that coaching and other preparation services would have no significant impact on student scores. They insisted Kaplan was merely preying on student anxieties. In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission finally ruled affirmatively that Kaplan’s services did improve scores.

One of the biggest criticisms in education today is an over-reliance on standardized tests. The first exhibit brought forth is usually the No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on testing to prove school compliance and improvement. Complaints abound that teachers are reduced to “teaching the test” instead of teaching subjects. Kaplan would doubtless argue his preparation services help struggling schools in this “unfair” environment.

The point of standardized testing is to prove acquisition and mastery over a wide body of knowledge. Limited test preparation is common sense but extensive training, particularly in terms of what subject matter to stress, seems to undercut the very thing such tests are attempting to draw out.

Could Kaplan really have proved his superior aptitude for the medical profession with standardized testing if all those lazy private school boys he was competing against had gotten top-notch instruction about how to get around/fake the same general acumen he legitimately possessed? Test preparation courses/materials cost money and the parents of Ivy Leaguers are more able to pay it than immigrant parents, such as Kaplan’s own, could ever dream. Does egalitarianism in test taking, which Kaplan definitely did enable, promote or hurt egalitarianism in educational opportunity?

My final thought about Kaplan is this – When they inter him at the cemetery and gravediggers begin throwing dirt into his final resting place, I only hope they fill in the space provided completely . . . I suspect that would have been important to him.

We spend our lives attempting to answer questions – some big, some small, some straightforward, some difficult. Sometimes our lives have a way of raising new questions, such as with these three. Eventually, however, the time will come for all of us when, like them, the test will be over and it is time to put our pencils down. When looking to squeeze in that final answer, my advice would be that “All of the Above” is as good a guess as any.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Nought God Proof

By Separating What We Truly Know from What We Fear/Desire, Science and Religion Can Find Communion

In Sunday’s New York Times, religious writer and editor Nathan Schneider finds himself ruminating over Anselm of Canterbury, the Eleventh Century Benedictine monk, philosopher, and theologian, who in 1077 had a self-described epiphany of logic in which he provided, most certainly to his own satisfaction, indisputable proof of God’s existence.

Subsequently published as his Proslogion, Anselm developed his proof along these lines. Humans recognize God as a Supreme Being who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent – “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” to use Anselm’s exact phrasing. Yet if this Supreme Being existed only in the intellect it would not be the greatest thing conceivable, since it would not exist in reality as well. Thus, Anselm concluded triumphantly, God must exist in reality.

Anselm loved his proof precisely because it rejected the cause and effect reasoning based on observations of physical reality that form the basis for modern scientific empiricism, relying instead on pure, abstract reason. It was an ontological argument, the goal of the Greek philosophers; what Aristotle called a “self-thinking thought.” Anselm’s critics, and there have been many, felt it was more derisively deemed a “self-satisfying thought,” in which humanity’s desire for God somehow proved God’s existence.

Atheists insist God is nothing more than a product of humanity’s collective desires. One of the most contentious battlefields on which believers and non-believers have waged their campaigns is the theory of evolution. Now some Darwinists are arguing that God is a direct (albeit regrettable) product of evolution. Writer Jeff Smith published a particularly pithy breakdown of this argument in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer back in 2006.

“It's our biology that gives us a long childhood. And our long childhood gives us time to learn all the things we need to know to survive in this world . . .

“We learn to learn. We learn to look for meaning and evidence, to ask questions. We learn that our parents know the answers to our questions – all the questions we know how to ask when we are young. In fact, we learn that there is always an answer . . .

“Our desire for certainty, even for absolute knowledge, is built into us just as surely as our brains are. And the anxiety of not knowing – about what's around the corner, about imminent danger, about the threats of the weather – has led us to fashion answers and a source of those answers . . .

“And all of this happens because it's the way we have learned to survive. If we didn't do it, we wouldn't survive as a species. It's the essence of natural selection. God is a product of evolution.”

Along comes Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, to make peace between the two camps. Given the title of his most recent book, The Evolution of God, one might think he was squarely in the atheist camp. In fact, the book is primarily about the evolution of religion. While Wright explores religion’s limitations and problems, he also gives credence to what it contains that is useful, even to non-believers.

He posits to have found just that in a long op-ed piece from Saturday’s New York Times, using yet another famous starting point for proof of God existence – the presence of a human moral imperative.

This line of reasoning runs that while cultural differences and individual experience can cause us to disagree among ourselves about what is right and what is wrong, an innate, universal sense exists within all people that there is such a thing as right and wrong. We perceive the distinction not as relativism but absolute law and feel guilt when we break it. The argument continues this moral sense comes from somewhere outside ourselves and then traces its source to God.

Wright has no interest in the metaphysical arguments behind a moral imperative but he argues there is a natural biological tendency toward “reciprocal altruism” anytime you have sufficiently intelligent beings thrown into social situations. Moreover, just as physical and biological laws ensure sufficiently complex protein chains become self-replicating, passing along their traits to their descendants, so the laws governing the infrastructures and interactions among intelligent social beings leading toward increased survival chances are consistent and have always existed.

In this sense, the set of rules and behavior we term “morality” are absolute and not human inventions, although our discovery of them helped codify and increase their usefulness to us. It is also in this sense that Wright feels non-believers can find religion (and God) useful and even admirable.

Doubtless, Wright is as self-delighted with his epiphany as was Anselm with his own nearly a thousand years earlier. This is because Wright’s insight exalts the importance of non-zero sum games, an old favorite of his, not only in our modern interconnected world but throughout human evolution.

Still, even if morality is absolute, it is still subjectively understood. And disagreement over what is moral, in combination with a moral imperative, is arguably a quality that has contributed to war and other forms of human suffering over our often-bloody history. The argument that we mortals but do the gods’ bidding or act as soldiers carrying out God’s Divine Plan has often been not a help but rather a hindrance to our survival. It would seem that revelation is dangerous when it comes without full understanding.

Of all Anselm’s critics, Immanuel Kant seemed to understand this best. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote –

“The concept of a Supreme Being is, in many respects, a very useful idea, but, being an idea only, it is quite incapable of increasing, by itself alone, our knowledge with regard to what exists. It cannot even do so much as to inform us any further as to its possibility . . . Time and labor therefore are lost on the famous ontological proof of the existence of a Supreme Being from mere concepts; and a man might as well imagine that he could become richer in knowledge by mere ideas, as a merchant in capital, if, in order to improve his position, he were to add a few noughts to his cash account.”

Schneider notes that, much like Wright, Anselm was less concerned over God’s existence in his famous proof (he already took that for granted) but rather finding some common ground about “how we think about God and about one another.” He describes how, despite being a young initiate in a monastery, Anselm was constantly reaching out, mostly by letter, to form friendships with as many people as possible. Anselm was both astounded and delighted by the selfless love capable between himself and others. Schneider concludes, “The God he conjured in proof he had learned from his friends.”

Anselm incorrectly believed revelation was full understanding, perhaps to his detriment and that of many others. But it is important to note that he was not wrong so much as he satisfied himself with an incomplete answer.

Likewise, it is wisdom to note that all human beings appear bound at some level by a shared moral imperative. Yet assuming this sense must come from some outside force is simply Kant’s equivalent of adding a nought to our intellectual capital. Make that outside force a supernatural being and add a few more noughts. Make that being the Supreme Creator of the Universe and we find “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is mostly composed of noughts. At some point, we have left the path of wisdom.

Wright and countless other thinkers are correct that scientific empiricism need not be at war with faith. The trick is to understand where the real battle lies. Rather than spending wasted hours attempting to prove “not God,” reasonable men and women need to separate the Truths we can all agree on from the noughts which have been tacked on to them as a result of our all-too-human fears and desires.

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Grandmother's Death Panel

Okay, I’ve Seen One. What the Hell Is Everybody so Frightened About?

My grandmother’s Death Panel convened this past Tuesday, August 18 at 1:00 PM EST. It lasted for approximately one hour. The members of the panel consisted of my grandmother, her primary physician, my wife, and me.

Here is the background –

My grandmother is ninety-nine years old. She is blind in one eye and has significant hearing loss, for which she wears hearing aids. She suffers from decreased mobility, such that she requires a walker just to move about insider her house. When walking outside, any trip longer than a few dozen steps requires a wheelchair.

Her mental faculties are sharp and her memory is excellent. Her heart, lungs, and other internal organs are all in good shape. She is a kind and loving soul, who adores her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and adored by them. Every doctor that has examined her recently agrees she easily has another one to three years of life. Her primary physician believes she could even have as long as another five to six years.

About six months ago, my grandmother noticed a change in her bowel habits. There is a history of colon cancer in her family but she has slacked off on regular checkups in recent years, assuming age was as likely to take her as anything else was. Her gastrointestinal specialist recommended a colonoscopy. That procedure discovered a tumor growing in her rectum. It is malignant, grown deep into the rectum wall, and occluding a substantial part of her bowel opening. On the plus side, there is no sign of the cancer having spread.

My grandmother faces three options. First, she can do nothing, in which case all her doctors agree she will die in four to six months from a locked bowel, a particularly agonizing form of departure.

Second, she can have the tumor surgically removed. The advantage of surgery is that it eliminates the cancer entirely. Her rectal surgeon, the best in the city, believes she can repair the rectum without requiring my grandmother to undergo a colostomy, although this is not certain. The drawbacks are that it is the most radical solution and could involve extended healing/recovery time, not to mention the possibility of dying on the operating table.

Finally, she can undergo a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. The advantage of radiation is that it is far less radical than surgery, while leaving that option as a fallback if radiation does not work. The drawbacks are that it will make her sick and weak. It also will not cure the cancer – the goal is simply to shrink the tumor sufficiently to relieve her current bowel problems and improve her quality of life for her next few remaining years.

Her rectal surgeon is convinced surgery will be less hard on my grandmother than radiation and chemotherapy.

Her oncologist and radiation specialist are convinced radiation and chemotherapy will be less hard on my grandmother than surgery.

Her primary physician favors surgery. He believes her chronological age is deceptive, saying her body is as strong or stronger than most eighty year olds. He believes she can survive surgery easily and will recuperate fully in a nursing home in four weeks or less. He likes removing the tumor quickly and completely rather than slowly and partially. He also pooh-poohs any inconveniences associated with a colostomy bag.

He believes it is best to do surgery now, rather than save it as a backup plan, because my grandmother is currently in such good shape overall. He fears that if she waits until it is determined radiation cannot shrink the tumor sufficiently and/or her bowel becomes fully obstructed by the tumor, then instead of elective surgery on healthy, quickly healing tissue, it will become emergency surgery on inflamed, slowly healing tissue.

After listening to all sides, my wife leaned in favor of surgery and I leaned in favor of radiation and chemotherapy.

The prospect of radiation and chemotherapy frighten my grandmother. She saw how sick and weak these treatments made my father, albeit for esophageal cancer, even though they very effectively shrank and eliminated his tumor. She does not fear surgery, although she does fear needing to wear a colostomy bag, based on the experience of her sister many years ago.

Every one of her doctors made it clear there was no right or wrong decision in this matter. We all promised to honor her choice, whatever it may be, and do whatever we could to help her in it to the best of our abilities.

Two days after her Death Panel adjourned, with much agonizing, my grandmother chose to pursue radiation and chemotherapy treatments, with surgery as a possible fallback option.

Her primary insurance is Medicare, a program run by the federal government. Her secondary insurance is with Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a private company.

Having watched someone I love dearly go through this process, I entirely fail to see what some people are so frightened about? No actuaries swooped in to tell my grandmother she was too old or unproductive to receive treatment. Does anybody really think widening Medicare or augmenting it with another public option would drastically change this? I do not see why. In my experience, the larger the pool of people paying in, the more insurance companies can afford to subsidize risky procedures and patients.

No social workers circled above like vultures, counseling her to consider euthanasia or pressure her doctor to provide physician-assisted suicide if requested. The only argument was over which approach would minimize her discomfit and maximize her remaining quality of life. We do not trust the federal government to do this but we trust for-profit private companies? If so, I believe we are placing our trust in the wrong fiduciary.

Yes, it was true that her age and unavoidable impending death was a factor in terms of what was best for all. Are we really violating the concept of a “Culture of Life” if we did not consider her in the same way we would consider her if she was a child, a young adult, or a middle-aged woman? This defies common sense to my mind.

You cannot possible read the above without realizing how difficult and complex a decision this must have been for a ninety-nine year old woman to make. It was certainly difficult for my wife and me to sit through with her. We relied on her doctors for not only their textbook medical acuity but also their human experience, values, and wisdom. Why the extra time they took with her on this should not be reimbursable to them is beyond me.

I understand the fears many are expressing over healthcare reform legislation but when we let our fear of future inhuman treatment stand in the way of helping our fellow human beings right now, it seems obvious enough that we have left the path of wisdom.

If I am lucky and unlucky enough, I may someday face the same end-of-life decision my grandmother now faces. I see no reason society will not be permit me to face it with the same independence as her and I hope I can do so with the same amount of courage and optimism she has consistently displayed.

What I do fear is that I will not have is any way to pay for what I choose unless something happens soon. That would be the ultimate death of individual autonomy. That would be the ultimate Death Panel. And all of us, in the here and now, will have been the choosers.

Let us choose at least as well for ourselves tomorrow as we chose for my grandmother earlier this week.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Lion of Nauvoo

Dick Cheney’s Legacy Is a Curious Mirror-Image to that of Mormon Leader Brigham Young

The final days of the Bush Administration generated much opinion as to the likely legacy awaiting George W. Bush. Seemingly almost forgotten was his powerful Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Even among admiring conservatives, Cheney is too enigmatic and secretive to understand his full role, motives, and aspirations. As for liberals, they despise Cheney too virulently to grant him anything as legitimate-sounding as a legacy; a prison sentence is more what they have in mind.

Cheney is currently writing his memoirs. Recently he broke his reputation for silent loyalty on CNN to suggest his book would be critical of President Bush, his former boss. Per Cheney, Bush began “moving away from him” during their second term.

Cheney was always the central pillar of resoluteness that defined the Administration throughout its eight years. He believed regret was a sign of moral weakness – a leader should always move forward, never apologizing for nor attempting to justify their actions.

In Cheney’s opinion, Bush came to care too much about public opinion and his image in the media. This led Bush to compromise by halting the use of waterboarding against accused terrorists, closing some secret CIA prisons, seeking Congressional approval for domestic surveillance, and treating diplomatically with Iran and North Korea, rather than pursuing regime change as he had in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cheney was disappointed the unyielding leader he thought he knew was an ordinary, accommodating politician at heart.

In this regard, Cheney reminds me of an antipode for Brigham Young and his relationship with Joseph Smith during the founding years of the Mormon Church. The difference is that the Bush/Cheney relationship was reversed, both in terms of the players’ respective roles and its unfolding over time.

Whether you view him as divine prophet or flimflam artist extraordinaire, Smith was an attractive, personable salesman for his new religion. He had a sharp insight into the American character and a talent for manipulating the status quo. When his proselytizing alarmed local authorities in one area, Smith quickly exited, bringing his ever-growing band of followers with him, and sought out fertile ground to win new converts.

He moved from his native New York to Pennsylvania, back to New York, and then lived for some years in Kirtland Ohio. He brought his flock to Missouri to establish a new Mormon capital there but eventually retreated to Nauvoo Illinois, where an angry mob finally caught up with and killed him.

By comparison, Brigham Young was blunt and taciturn but he had proven himself to Smith through his loyalty at a time when many former close associates were turning on their founder. Young attested that when Smith preached the necessity of polygamy, “It was the first time in my life that I desired the grave.” Yet his desire to obey dogma overcame his personal revulsion and he ended up marrying a total of fifty-five wives.

Following Smith’s death, Young slowly but surely won respect among fellow church elders for his zeal and resolve. Lacking Smith’s showman instincts to know when to close down and move on, Young treated every conflict as a desperate fight for which the purity of Mormonism itself was at stake.

His will alone led the Mormons on long trek, first to Nebraska and ultimately the Great Salt Lake Valley in modern-day Utah. Young doubtless liked the isolated location as one in which his people could practice their faith in private. However, he probably also approved of the harsh desert surroundings as a constant reminder to Mormons that they were a people under siege by the larger world. Frequent skirmishes with Native Americans, non-Mormon settlers, and the U.S. government were to mark the long remaining years of his leadership.

In many ways, Mormonism and neo-conservative ideology have much in common, particularly their stress on the individual and immediate family over larger communal ties. They also share a paradoxical blend of missionary recruitment with xenophobic distrust of all outside their immediate clan. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that Utah is one of the most dependably red states.

Despite originating from America, Brigham Young would have preferred Utah to become its own nation rather than a U.S. state. Although Mormonism draws much from Judaism and Christianity, it maintains a distinct separateness from both.

Likewise, the modern conservative, while respecting and even celebrating the virtues of U.S. democracy, plurality, and egalitarianism, seems to desire citizenship rights but not necessarily membership within a nation containing so many unlike-thinking individuals. Or, as they are more apt to express it, view themselves as the only “true” Americans. They regard the rest of the U.S. as some might view the Catholic Church of Europe’s Middle Ages – overly-inclusive and tending to corruption, containing far too many thieves, pedophiles, and, worst of all, poor people.

The relationship between Dick Cheney and George Bush was rather like what might have happened if Brigham Young had invented Mormonism but then used the charismatic Joseph Smith as a front man to sell it and increase its palatability.

Like Young, Cheney saw the United States as a shining city in the midst of a desert waste. Freedom’s enemy of choice in a post-Cold War world was Islamic terrorism but the ultimate goal was to cleanse Zion from within, eliminating contaminates and allowing Cheney and like-minded elites ascension to ever-growing levels of power, even if they chose to exercise that power behind the scenes.

Yet in Bush, Cheney started with a hard right-wing zealot who slowly lost his starch and devolved into the more moderate centrist he had been as Governor of Texas and candidate he campaigned as in the 2000 election. If Bush had been truer to his nature and less dependent upon his father’s old advisors, it would have been interesting to see if his legacy might have been very different.

Likewise, it would be equally interesting what difference might have resulted if President Obama placed less emphasis on old Clinton hands and old Chicago insiders for his inner circle.

For Cheney, however, the outcome is a clear and bitterly disappointing one. Banished from the Zion of national security respectability, circumstance has thrown him into a wilderness, where he rails ceaselessly against international policies of engagement and domestic policies of socialism, even as historians document his erosion of civil liberties and enemies contemplate investigations of criminal maneuverings.

Like some bizarre mirror image of Brigham Young, Cheney finds himself and America making a reverse pilgrimage from the solidly red state Promised Lands of Utah and Wyoming to the more subtle and complex mixture of blue and red that comprises Obama’s Illinois. Mormon faithful adoringly dubbed Young the “Lion of the Lord” for his adamancy in the face of persecution and doubt. The best Cheney can hope at present is a continued angry fighting retreat whose outcome is uncertain. He is the Lion of Nauvoo.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Angry America

We’re Mad as Hell but Both Republicans and Democrats Must Beware – It Really Is About More than Just Healthcare

In some ways, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is the ultimate example of a Washington establishment immoveable object meeting the irresistible force of heartland America discontent. His town hall meetings with constituents to discuss healthcare reform have been no louder or angrier than other members of Congress have faced. Yet no one has come across as more thunderstruck by the protestors, no one has looked more like a deer caught in onrushing electoral headlights.

Specter’s initial reaction/response to the angry crowds was an ineffectual blend of clueless stammering and pompous indignation. Yet in the midst of his verbal fumbling, he managed to produce both the truest and least true observations possible about the anger so prevalent in America.

The untrue statement by Specter regarding protestors is that they are “not necessarily representative of America.” According to him, “I think they're vocal. I don't think they're representative.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding, in my opinion. While it is not necessarily universal, most Americans are angry to some extent. There is anger driven by fear, anger driven by frustration, and anger driven by disgust.

There were signs of this anger at the various “tea parties” organized by conservative activists earlier this year but it really burst forth at the recent townhall meetings to discuss healthcare. This is where Specter’s insightful true observation comes into play.

“It's more than healthcare,” he said, referring to the fury of the crowds. “I think there is a mood in America of anger with so many people unemployed, with so much bickering in Washington . . . with the fear of losing their healthcare. It all boils over.”

Healthcare is just the final straw in systematic disgruntlement, whereby too many Americans see government as addressing the wrong players and the wrong problems. Bailing out big banks and General Motors while working people continue to see jobs hemorrhaging away may have been necessary but bound to be unpopular. Ensuring healthcare for those who do not have it today – the very poor and the very sick – is secondary to many Americans with health insurance, who want it to cost less and fear losing choices.

While unhappiness is very real and widespread, it burns most hotly among conservatives, for whom any attack against Obama policies is a good thing because it represents an attack against Obama.

Yesterday, MSNBC’s First Read noted, “Even though these town halls have been focused on healthcare, the frustrations are clearly about more than that for these conservatives who didn’t vote for Obama and would never vote for Obama. They are irritated with the direction of the country after the 2008 election, with a man as President they didn't vote for and a Congress ruled by Democrats. They are angry about being out of power and having – because of being in the minority – what they feel is no say.”

Today, Paul Krugman of the New York Times joined in agreement. “The truth is that the attacks on the President have no relationship to anything he is actually doing or proposing.” Rather, it is “the paranoia of a significant minority of Americans and the cynical willingness of leading Republicans to cater to that paranoia.”

Washington Post columnist David Broder thinks, “These angry opponents are playing with fire.” Remembering when some Texas conservatives pilloried Lyndon Johnson for selling out to “Yankee socialists” after he agreed to be John Kennedy’s running mate, only to end up caught in a backlash, Broder predicts the same fate for those stirring up crowds today.

As proof, Broder points to numerous columns and editorials written against disrespect shown toward elected officials. However, “I haven't seen any polls taken since the demonstrations began,” he admits.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll out this week casts doubts on Broder’s hypothesis. It found the recent town hall protests left thirty-four percent of respondents more sympathetic toward protestors, as opposed to twenty-one percent left less sympathetic. Particularly troubling for Democrats, Independent voters said they were now more sympathetic to protestors by a two-to-one margin.

House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, acting in the role of anti-Broder, issued this warning, “Those in Washington who dismiss the frustration of the American people and call it ‘manufactured’ do so at their own peril.”

Yet the chance of passing healthcare reform may not be quite as bleak as many on either side of the issue currently believe. The same poll found fifty-seven percent believe pre-existing concerns of average citizens were behind town hall protests, while forty-eight percent saw them as agitated by organized anti-reform activists. This means either Gallup surveyed one hundred and five percent of Americans . . . or many people realize a combination of catalysts is at work.

Likewise, while respondents found angry attacks against current healthcare reform bills were “democracy in action” rather than an “abuse of democracy” by a ten point margin, a bipartisan twenty-five point margin agreed that protestors jeering and shouting down supporters attempts to defend the legislation is an abuse.

There is no question that President Obama and progressive Democrats in Congress have made numerous mistakes with healthcare reform. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post succinctly summarizes the most significant of these.

“We should be having two debates. One should be about the obligation to ensure universal access to healthcare, which will directly benefit millions of struggling families and make this a better society. The other – a more complicated, difficult and painful discussion – should be about the long-term problem of out-of-control healthcare costs, which would be a looming crisis even if President Obama had never uttered the word ‘reform’.”

Obama and his supporters are working hard to communicate their message better but the damage done is probably irreparable. Healthcare reform, in whatever version it may pass, will be far less comprehensive and aggressive than anything envisioned by liberal Democrats, such as House Speaker Pelosi, and perhaps that is for the best. It is even possible that Congress will fail to pass healthcare reform altogether.

Yet Republicans rubbing their hands with glee at such a prospect may come to rue the tactics employed to make it happen. They have not manufactured public discontent but they have encouraged it, sometimes by malicious and duplicitous means. Many Americans are presently willing to take the wildest rumors floated about socialism and “death panels” and clutch them to their breasts like inexorable truths because it feeds their anger and anger is the only sense of empowerment they have at the present.

The problem is that anger, like fire, burns hotter when stoked into a conflagration but also burns out more quickly. By tapping into genuine restlessness and aggravating needless fears, without offering any real solutions of their own, conservatives may be wasting all their fuel on defeating a bill posing far less danger to their ideological interests than Cap and Trade or upcoming debates on immigration reform, national defense, and budget deficits.

Worst of all for them, 2010 may find voters burnt out on Obama and Democrats but equally cynical and apathetic toward Republicans as well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Glass Heads

Do Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin Embody Successful Women Held Back by Sexist Prejudice or Their Own Weaknesses?

In 1979, the New Wave band Blondie introduced us to the concept of a “heart of glass.” Followers of boxing have applied the terms “glass chin” and, to a lesser extent, “glass stomach” to certain fighters for years. But what about a “glass head?” Suppose a person has the guts, brains, and strength to climb up the most crowded and slippery ladder of success, only to have their craniums shatter from the rarefied altitude when they reach the top rung.

Scott Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management, presented the results of a study he conducted yesterday at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Chicago. The study asked male and female managers from different industries nationwide to rate themselves and request ratings from supervisors, peers, and subordinates. The study also asked subjects to predict how others would rate them.

The results found that female managers are three times as likely to underrate their bosses' opinions of their job performance as are their male counterparts. Women also tended to impose much more exemplary standards of performance upon themselves to justify praise, recognition, and rewards. They were more likely to focus on their shortcomings rather than their accomplishments. These trends were even more striking in women over fifty years of age.

Taylor believes his findings go a long way to explain why women often fail to rise to head companies as well as the well-documented wage disparity between men and women performing the same jobs. In other words, the “glass ceiling” that so many successful women complain about may be self-imposed and it really their own glass heads they hear cracking on their final pushes to the top.

Other management academics, while not ready to wholly embrace Taylor’s conclusions, agree his findings are intriguing and worthy of further study. Two highly influential American female politicians may already have provided case studies this week.

First, while traveling in Africa, a Congo student asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who is over fifty) about a multibillion-dollar Chinese loan offer to Congo of which the World Bank disapproves. Specifically, he asked her, “What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton . . . on this situation?” As it turns out, the student meant to ask her what President Obama thought about matter. It is not clear whether he mixed-up the names or the translator made a mistake.

In any case, Clinton showed a rare flash of temper at the question and its implications.

“You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she asked incredulously. Then she snapped, “My husband is not Secretary of State, I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband.”

Numerous pundits have questioned whether Clinton might feel overshadowed and forgotten within the Obama Administration but this was the first time she ever showed any outward signs of frustration. The student later personally apologized to Clinton for his badly worded question and she told him not to worry about it. Still, her angry assumption that it represented disrespect for her authority suggests thin – and perhaps transparent – skin in her scalp region.

When you feel the need to flash your label of office to prove you are in charge, it is not a reassuring display of leadership.

Second, at the other end of the political spectrum, former Alaska Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin (who is under fifty) raised eyebrows when she wrote the following on her Facebook page as her first published comments since leaving office.

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Never mind that the nonpartisan group disagreed there was such a clause in any of the health care bills under consideration in Congress. For the purposes of this discussion, the more troubling aspect of Palin’s accusation is her systematic tendency to view those with whom she disagrees as villains out to attack her personally.

Consider this diatribe from her farewell speech.

“Some straight talk for some . . . in the media because another right protected for all of us is freedom of the press . . . Democracy depends on you and that is why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how ’bout in honor of the American soldier, ya quit makin’ things up . . . And one other thing for the media, our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone.”

Palin unquestionably has as much right as any contemporary politician to complain about savage press coverage. However, there is a huge difference in the press failing to show discretion about sensationalizing her family problems versus reporting untruths. And the suggestion they were dishonoring U.S. troops by criticizing her is jingoism combined with paranoia bordering on the delusional.

When you keep insisting malevolent forces thrust unfair labels upon you, once again it is not a reassuring display of leadership.

None of this proves or even suggests that sexism is not a significant and pervasive problem in U.S. society. However, it does seem possible that even the most competent and accomplished women might continue to blame their personal shortcomings on it long after they have proven themselves.

In many ways, Taylor’s findings are hardly shocking. If a woman encounters unfair evaluations of her performance and finds she must walk on water for others to consider her minimally competent throughout her career, why would she assume the environment has suddenly changed now that she is only one step away from grabbing the brass ring?

Yet leadership, by definition, means standing higher than the crowd. While “good old boy” support networks help ease the upward climb, the best leaders are usually self-made rather than anointed.

Every leader manifests their leadership in different ways. However, the styles chosen by Clinton (leadership by pugilism) and Palin (leadership through victimhood) seem questionable at best. These are women of enormous power and influence in America today. Each may still yet run for President, perhaps even against one another.

For them at least, “breaking through the glass ceiling” may be less about shattering through a conspiracy of prejudice arrayed against them and more about rising above their own prejudice that such a barrier even still exists for them. Neither option will be possible if both turn out to possess glass heads.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Crime of Poverty

And Don’t Forget It’s Cohort – The Crime of Sickness

All this [wealth] excludes but one evil – poverty.
~ Samuel Johnson to Boswell

I recently posted about groups of sex offenders forced to squat under bridges because a Florida law meant to protect children was so strict as to effectively render them homeless. When their numbers grew too large, Florida officials simply made it illegal for them to squat under bridges as well. A city attorney in Saint Petersburg defended ordinances that appeared to be targeting the homeless, saying, “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance.”

This sort of callous rationalization is increasingly becoming the norm in this country, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, a sociologist, political activist, and author, who discusses the issue in this past Sunday’s New York Times.

A new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty finds the number of ordinances against living in public poverty has been rising since 2006. The president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified before Congress in June about persistently stiffer penalties for crimes that are not a risk to public safety, such as vagrancy, jaywalking, and littering.

Ehrenreich also documents several cities that have outlawed charitable groups distributing food to the indigent in public places. Other communities have begun charging those arrested for homelessness for room and board while in prison, thereby resulting in un-remittable debt upon their release.

The pattern, says Ehrenreich, is obvious. “Curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement.”

It is easy for the poor to run afoul of the law with a system skewed against them. For example, loss of income or excessive debt forces a poor person to miss paying their auto insurance premium. A subsequent accident or routine traffic stop may cause a suspension of their license to impounding of their car. Unable to drive, they cannot get to work on time and lose their jobs. They also miss a court date on their ticket and are now in contempt of court.

“There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

And have no doubt – the system is skewed. Despite all our benefits, the U.S. continues to commit a greater proportion of our citizens to prison than any other civilized country. A significant percent of these people are living at or below poverty. We imprison them at much higher rates and execute them for capital crimes more often than any other group. They are almost the exclusive recipients of the death penalty.

Nathan Brown, a social psychologist from Miami University at Oxford Ohio notes that while general crime rates do not increase with poverty rates, the poor do commit a greater portion of the crimes against person and property. He notes that many experts attribute increased aggression among the poor resulting in crime largely to the “gross inequalities between the very rich and the very poor.”

The tendency to criminalize poverty is precisely a conscious attempt to ease the guilt of the rest of society over their treatment and justify their marginalization. A poor man haranguing the affluent or the authorities over an unfair system is an object of potential sympathy and even admiration. A criminal doing so is an object of distrust and disdain.

Carl Holmes of the Orange County Public Defenders Office, says, “I believe because we have sufficiently isolated the poor, who are not like ‘us,’ and sufficiently demeaned them, that we have become indifferent to their plight. It is a matter of insensitivity and arrogance. It is our arrogance. We are more concerned about our status, our houses, our cars and our vacations than we are about taking care of each other.”

Likewise, Alex Schiraldi, Director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, is cynical but only too accurate when he observes, “If four in ten young white men [from affluent, upper-class families] were under the control of the criminal justice system, we would not be passing ‘three strikes’ laws or building more prisons. We would be funding education, jobs, and drug treatment.”

Even back in 1885, the American political economist Henry George understood the inherent dangers in sufficient concentration of wealth creating distinct and widely separated social classes.

“Talk about abolishing slavery – we have not abolished slavery; we have only abolished one rude form of it, chattel slavery. There is a deeper and a more insidious form, a more cursed form yet before us to abolish in this industrial slavery that makes a man a virtual slave, while taunting him and mocking him with the name of freedom . . . Therefore I hold that poverty is a crime – not an individual crime, but a social crime, a crime for which we all, poor as well as rich, are responsible.”

Note that the Community Safety & Crime Prevention Council defines poverty as more than a mere lack of financial resources. “Poverty manifests itself in a lack of educational opportunities, lack of meaningful employment options, poor housing, lack of hope, and the prejudice against persons living in poverty.”

The poor suffer significantly more violence than the affluent do. In addition, they suffer higher disease rates, death rates and lack of healthcare.

In the current debate over healthcare reform, we face a choice over what is most important. There are those who believe our chief goal should be universal coverage, such that a minimum level of reasonable healthcare is available to all who desire it. Then there are those who believe that goal should be ensuring the same high levels of healthcare (or better) for those already insured at a cheaper price. Those predicting national collapse exhort on the latter, attempting to justify selfishness as a twisted form of patriotism.

What we ultimately choose as most important about healthcare reform will say a lot about us as a society and a nation. It is more than simply a moral decision, although it is certainly that as well. It is more than just a “nice to have.” We have marginalized those living in poverty to the point of criminalization. Now we must decide if being sick is a great enough offense as to rival the crime of being poor.

Friday, August 7, 2009

If You Liked Gitmo . . .

How Republicans Can Oppose Socialized Medicine and Housing Terrorists in their States’ Prisons Just Doesn’t Make Sense

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas is a minority member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Unsurprisingly, as a Republican, he does not think much of the healthcare reform legislation proposed by his Democratic counterparts and backed by President Obama. In Roberts’s view, it means adding to an already bloated federal government bureaucracy.

“This bill jeopardizes the [current] healthcare system . . . and puts the government – not patients and doctors – at the center of decisions about treatment,” Roberts sputters indignantly. Worst of all, it will do so “at the expense of the already overburdened taxpayer.” When it comes to healthcare reform, Roberts wants Washington to leave Kansas alone. Kansas is more than competent at taking care of its own backyard.

As a former Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, another thing that Roberts does not want in Kansas’s backyard is imprisoned terrorists. Obama recently named Fort Leavenworth military prison as one of the locations he is leaning toward for housing Guantanamo Bay’s most dangerous terrorist detainees once that facility closes. Only this time, Roberts wants the federal government to back off because Kansas apparently lacks the competence to handle this problem themselves.

“Leavenworth is not suitable for the hundred most dangerous terrorists in the world,” Roberts insists.

Right. How could the U.S. Army possibly duplicate in Kansas what it has been doing in Cuba for the past eight years? Suddenly, big, centralized, bureaucratic federal government strikes Roberts as the only way to go.

Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan is a minority member of the House Subcommittee on Health. Like Roberts, he too is dismayed at the prospect of Obamacare passing into law.

Despite the fact that “more than any other state, Michigan has faced the most difficult crisis [regarding healthcare costs],” Rogers insists many Michigan families are happy with the private health insurance plans they have through employers, even if “they might not be perfect.” In his mind, this means healthcare reform is possible “without piling up mountains of debt and without putting the government in charge of our healthcare.”

Rogers has authored his own reform proposal that would “expand funding for Community Health Centers, with a focus on cities and towns.” He is another Republican who believes healthcare reform is best undertaken is one’s own backyard.

Obama has also named Standish maximum-security prison in Michigan as yet another potential destination for Guantanamo detainees. Strictly speaking, this is not in Roger’s immediate backyard – he represents Michigan’s eighth district, while Standish is in Michigan’s first district, represented by Democrat Bart Stupak. However, since Stupak apparently lacks the sense to be scared shitless by this prospect, Roberts has decided to step up and do it for him.

As a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as its Subcommittee on Terrorism, Rogers insists his state could not possibly handle what the big, bloated, doddering federal government is currently doing for them. “These are people who are highly trained and motivated to commit jihad,” Rogers quails. “No amount of money can be thrown at these states that will make this safe and acceptable.”

He has a point. The worst of the lot at Guantanamo are extremist terrorist fanatics, who are guilty of killing, depredating human worth, and destroying civilization in the name of ideology and religious purity. Can you imagine the horrors that would result if we mixed them with the murderers, rapists, and arsonists currently housed in U.S. military and civilian prisons, who are guilty of killing, depredating human worth, and destroying civilization merely for profit and/or gratifying their private psychosexual deviances?

The terrorists might even be able to convert a few of our unsuspecting innocents to Islam before getting their throats slashed for their smokes by them.

In fairness, Roberts says he believes the military police at Fort Leavenworth can “secure a facility . . . without a doubt.” Whew! However, he maintains that Kansans are terrified “their schools, hospitals and shopping centers will become symbolic, easy targets for terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.”

Yes, I can see how uncomplicated it would be for Arab-looking Middle East men to slip through those borders unnoticed. Imagine this scene . . .

OFFICIAL – Now then, Mr. Al . . . Kighdee, is it? From one a’ them Muslim countries?

AL – That’s right.

OFFICIAL – What exactly is your reason for visiting Kansas?

AL – I enjoy taking walking tours of wheat fields located near sensitive government facilities on my vacations and I understand the ones in Kansas are the best in the world.

OFFICIAL – Well, we like to think so. You’re free to go about your business. Oh, and be sure to take as many guns as you like from that stack of semi-automatic weapons over there.

AL – Re-really?

OFFICIAL – Yup, it’s part of a new program we’ve started. We hope that by getting a chance to exercise the same Second Amendment rights we take for granted, you’ll be motivated to transform your backward, barbaric country from a religious theocracy to a secular democracy, much like our own . . . with Christ’s help, of course. Praise Jesus!

AL – Uh, yes. Praise the heck out of him. What a guy!

OFFICIAL – See, you’re already getting into the spirit.

As silly as the above dialogue may have been, so it seems equally silly that those who are so quick to endorse turning U.S. military forces into international police officers and prison guards are equally mortified by the thought of the government empowering doctors to return to practicing medicine.

C’mon Senator Roberts and Representative Rogers . . . if you liked Gitmo, you ought to love Obamacare. Just think of disease as a bunch of bad guys that need to be contained and you’ll come to realize you’ve been living in a socialist utopia for years now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Giving Baby Its Bottle

By Sending Bill Clinton, Obama Provided Kim Jong-Il with a “Teachable Moment” about the Differences Between Good Attention and Bad Attention

The release of two American journalists by North Korea in the wake of former President Bill Clinton’s surprise visit is wonderful news. North Korean officials arrested Euna Lee and Laura Ling near the Chinese border four months ago, while the two women journalists were on a reporting trip for Current TV, a media service owned by former Vice-President Al Gore. In June, North Korea sentenced the pair to twelve years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in “hostile acts.”

The White House described Clinton’s visit as a “solely private” effort to win the journalists’ freedom. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied Clinton carried any message from President Obama or that he engaged in official negotiations with the North Korean on any subject.

Unsurprisingly, Pyongyang had a slightly different take on things. During his visit, Clinton received honors typically reserved for heads of state, not the least of which was a direct meeting with Kim Jong-Il. State-run North Korean media insisted the two men engaged in “wide-ranging and exhaustive” talks during their meeting and that Clinton “courteously” conveyed a verbal message to Kim from Obama. North Korean heralded the women’s release as proof of its “humanitarian and peace-loving policy.”

The true nature of Clinton’s mission likely fell somewhere in-between the conflicting pictures painted by Washington and the North Koreans respectively. Clinton’s visit was neither serendipitous nor autonomous but rather the product of weeks of quiet negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations.

As Daniel Sneider, Associate Director of Research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, explains, “[Clinton] didn’t go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation.”

At the same time, Clinton’s non-official status within the Obama Administration gave the U.S. an opportunity to allow Kim to save face through freeing the reporters without expending any real diplomatic capital of our own.

Conservative hawks viewed this strategy dourly. The ink had not yet dried on the reporters’ prison release papers before former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wet his own ink on the pages of the Washington Post to criticize the decision.

“Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama Administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former President to do so,” he huffed. Bolton conceded the safe release of the two women as “welcome news” but fretted it did not “mitigate the future risks entailed.”

Later, in the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Chang, an expert and forthcoming author on the North Korean regime, expanded on that risk. Chang expressed hope that any negotiations to free the journalists did not “include undeserved concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program or an agreement to ignore the plight of the country’s numerous other detainees.”

Yet the high-profile nature of Clinton as an emissary, so objectionable to some critics, is undoubtedly at the heart of his choice by the Obama Administration. The key to dealing with North Korea is to understand that the thing most craved by Kim Jong-Il is international attention, which provides him authority and legitimacy among his impoverished subjects. Given his country’s isolation and dwindling circle of allies, Kim has undertaken a series of provocative and highly dangerous moves to garner that attention.

Especially given his history with North Korea, Bill Clinton represented the most glittering trophy for Kim to display who nevertheless is not an official representative of the U.S. government. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, understands this approach very well. Back on July 20, she told ABC’s Good Morning America that the consistent factor in dealing with Kim over the years has been his “constant demand for attention.”

Of course, in that same interview, Clinton darkened a few brows within Kim’s inner circle by observing, “Maybe it's the mother in me or the experience that I've had with small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention – don't give it to them, they don't deserve it, they are acting out.”

Why then would her boss use her own husband seemingly to undercut Clinton’s wisdom? Perhaps because his own experiences as a father have taught Obama a thing or two about how to deal with an infant in tantrums.

Sometimes it is best to let a crying baby howl away, so it learns that others will not always meet its demands with positive reinforcement. In other situations, it is the better part of discretion to simply give baby its bottle. This is especially true when baby’s crying could cause discomfit to others, such as in a crowded room. Such was the case this time between the U.S. and North Korea, with two American journalists’ lives/freedom on the line.

In a sense, Bill Clinton was the biggest, shiniest bottle Obama could send to Kim’s crying baby. It did succor him with desired attention but nothing beyond this. Moreover, it just might help Kim to see the different possible outcomes between good attention and bad attention.

Should the U.S. and its allies regard the women’s release as worthy of concessions in their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program? Absolutely not. Should the U.S. reward North Korea with two-party talks? Probably not. How about relaxing the international embargo to give Kim a few of the goods, both basics and luxuries, that he uses to maintain his control over North Korea’s populace? Possibly.

In the best outcome, combining this carrot with the appropriate subsequent discipline, the U.S. may entice North Korea’s government to return to the six-party disarmament talks from which Kim walked angrily away earlier this year.

Obama had an opportunity to provide Kim with a “teachable moment.” He could not invite the North Korean leader to the White House for a beer, so he sent Bill Clinton to Pyongyang with a bottle of a different sort. Baby Kim gurgled happily in response. Now it remains to see if nuclear Kim learned any lessons in the process.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Like a Bridge Over Hobbled Squatters

Learning How Our Cities Deal with Sex Offenders and the Homeless May Not “Ease Your Mind”

In even simplistic societies, some individuals inevitably come to live on the fringes, co-existing with others and yet not really accepted members of society proper. In large and sufficiently complex societies, these individuals grow into large groups or communities, with their own subcultures and infrastructures. How society as a whole chooses to deal with these fringe communities often says a lot about its values.

One such group is the homeless. In the United States, New York City has among the largest homeless communities. They have developed a program in recent years that helps deal with the problem by essentially passing it to others.

Since 2007, New York has spent nearly a half million dollars per year on a program that has paid over five hundred families to leave the Big Apple for greener orchards. These families represent a mixture of longtime residents who have fallen on hard times and recent pilgrims who quickly discover New York has more problems and fewer opportunities for them than imagined.

New York utilizes the cheapest method available to transport the families but is not above using international airfare if required. Its most expensive relocation to date involved flying a family to Paris at a cost of over $6,000. So far, the domestic program has returned families to twenty-four states and the international program to five continents. Puerto Rico and the southeastern costal U.S. are the most common destinations.

The justification for the program is purely economic. Even the most expensive moves cost New York less than housing the homeless in expensive shelters, which average $36,000 per year per family.

New York officials insist the program is humane. They point out the removal option is entirely voluntary. Moreover, families must prove they have a relative willing to sponsor/house them in a new location. They point to the zero return rate among those deported as proof the program is meeting a legitimate need.

However, critics contend the program does nothing to address the underlying problems that created homeless families.

“The city is engaged in cosmetics,” says Arnold Cohen, president and chief executive of the Partnership for the Homeless, an advocacy group in New York. “What we’re doing is passing the problem of homelessness to another city. We’re taking people from a shelter bed here to the living room couch of another family. Essentially, the family is still homeless.”

Sex offenders represent another fringe community within society. Traditionally ostracized by neighbors once discovered, voters have become increasingly aggressive about identifying and restricting the movements of such offenders, who are almost exclusively men. The recent passage of Jessica’s Law in states like California, Iowa, and Florida is often causing sex offenders to join the homeless.

Jessica’s Law makes it illegal for convicted sex offenders to reside anywhere from five hundred to twenty-five hundred feet of any school or park, regardless of whether their crimes were against children or adults. Many communities lack any homes, condominiums, apartments, or boarding houses meeting this criterion.

In Miami Florida, sex offenders, lacking any other quarters, took to squatting under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a busy bridge over Biscayne Bay connecting Miami to Miami Beach. Local officials, initially flummoxed over what to do with them, allowed offenders to live outdoors. They even issued the squatters ID cards that listed beneath the bridge as their official residence.

At the same time, the city sought to hobble offenders – not with shackles or manacles but rules and regulations. The men must stay under the bridge from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. each night. A parole officer drove out to check on the squatter’s presence regularly. Some offenders wore GPS tracking bracelets but found it difficult to keep them charged due to a lack of power outlets.

What began in 2007 with five regular squatters grew within a year to nineteen squatters. Their numbers reached over fifty by this year. At that point, Miami followed the lead of Fort Lauderdale, which hosted a similar group of squatters under one of its bridges, and ordered the makeshift camp to disperse.

Promised assistance in finding housing never materialized. “We want them to be able to reintegrate into society,” insists a spokesperson for the Florida Corrections Department. “We are hopeful that if we push them, they will be able to find a residence that's better.” Unlike New York, the deportation is neither voluntary nor comfortable but the theme remains the same – leave and make yourself someone else’s problem.

“What the law's doing to us is totally wrong,” says Juan Carlos Martin, one of those forced out. Fifteen potential employers have rejected him because of his record and he cannot find an affordable residence in compliance with the law. “We aren't animals,” he asserts with obvious frustration.

In California, sex offenders are finding it useful to blend into the homeless community. Jessica’s Law often makes finding acceptable housing there equally difficult. However, the large population allows offenders to settle illegally but avoid detection by officially declaring themselves homeless. The fraud not only helps them avoid arrest but also makes it more difficult to ensure they receive the medications and therapy that were conditions of their rehabilitation and parole.

GPS ankle bracelets may alleviate the problem in the future but police there are only now phasing them in volume among the homeless community.

In many cases, sex offenders feel required to skirt authorities, knowing they will receive no sympathy from them. One offender, who lives near Disneyland, said he registered as homeless after his parole officer rejected one potential residence after another.

“I finally asked, ‘Where do you want me to live’? He said, ‘You have a car, don’t you’?” the man reports.

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss the problems of such individuals. Many find themselves in their current positions by choice and/or as the result of poor past choices. Nobody wants an impoverished homeless family living in public housing in their neighborhood. The objection against local sexual offenders is even stronger. Such angst is understandable and even reasonable as we strive to protect our families.

Yet driving sex offenders, including pedophiles, into homeless subcultures is not without risks to innocents. It places homeless children, who are just as naïve and helpless as other children and have fewer advocates and protectors, directly in the path of yet another danger. This should be a heavy burden for anyone of conscience.

More to the point, ignoring subcultures living on the fringe, or even attempting drive them away altogether, also guarantees negative consequences for society as a whole. It takes an already dispossessed and disassociated group of people and places them in increasingly dire and desperate situations. The resulting stresses often transform them from parasitic to increasingly predatory roles, subjecting their prey (i.e. us) to particularly ruthless and nasty treatment.

“This is not an ideal situation for anybody,” fretted one Miami official about the bridge squatters.

“We could potentially be making the world more dangerous rather than less dangerous,” notes therapist Gerry Blasingame, past chairperson of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending.

Economics and other practical considerations often prevent us from offering an idyllic “bridge over trouble waters” to those living on the fringes of society. However, we surely do nothing but harm by constructing bridges to nowhere, as in New York, bridges to squat under wearing hobbles, as in Florida, and bridges back into the mainstream un-rehabilitated, as in California.

Surely, we can build better. Surely, we can be more. In the end, it protects our own, best interests.