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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Run, Dick, Run

Perhaps the GOP’s Future Lies with Its Past

Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, made a veiled suggestion about her father running for President in 2012 on a recent FOX News Sunday. The reaction was “good natured laughter,” seemingly the way political analysts universally regard a Cheney candidacy. Ordinary viewers reacted more enthusiastically, with people calling in to ask, “Where do I sign up?”

Last Friday, they got a place to do so. Christopher Barron, a Washington-based campaign consultant and lawyer, who served as the national political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, filed papers in Washington to form a committee to draft Cheney in 2012. Barron called Cheney the only member of the GOP “with the experience, political courage and unwavering commitment to the values that made our party strong.”

“The 2012 race for the Republican nomination for President will be about much more then who will be the Party's standard-bearer against Barack Obama,” continued Barron. “The race is about the heart and soul of the GOP.”

In the current issue of Newsweek, editor and historian Jon Meacham earnestly endorses the idea of Republicans nominating Cheney, calling him “a man of conviction, [who] has a record on which he can be judged.” Meacham is actually not the first pundit to float the idea of a Cheney candidacy – Peter Roff, a Contributing Editor at U.S. News & World Report and senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, and Roger Simon, chief political columnist at POLITICO, all engaged in semi-serious musings over a Cheney run earlier this year.

One argument in support of Cheney maintains that he may well be the only Republican politician who never turned against former President Bush. John McCain based his campaign on the promise he was nothing like Bush and accused Bush of making numerous extremist mistakes. Cheney, on the other hand, seems to think Bush’s only mistakes were in not going far enough.

Douthat writes, “As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless.” Simon observes, “The Republicans need a person who knows how to attack [Obama]. John McCain never seemed comfortable in that role.”

A strong and unapologetic Republican candidate would provide a clear dichotomy for voters to choose between in 2012, assuming Obama seeks re-election. “There could be no ambiguity about the will of the people,” Meacham contends. A Cheney victory would mean that America preferred a vigorous unilateralism to President Obama's unapologetic multilateralism.” If nothing else, “a Cheney-Obama contest would have clarified conservatism’s present political predicament,” muses Douthat.

Cheney’s vocal defense of Bush Administration policies against Obama Administration criticisms as well as his own criticisms of Obama caused some Republicans to cringe, especially earlier in the year when Obama’s popularity was still riding high. Even so, it was a guilty pleasure for conservatives and they have now long forgotten their previous chagrin with Obama’s approval ratings below fifty percent.

Still, does it translate into anything politically viable for Cheney? John Fund of the Wall Street Journal points out the only reason Cheney “is able to be forthcoming is because he is not running for office.” Would Cheney have to muzzle himself as the official GOP nominee in order to be successful and, if so, could he do it?

A CNN/ Opinion Research Corporation poll from May showed that while fifty-five percent still had an unfavorable view of Cheney, this represented an eight point improvement since he left office in January. On the other hand, George W. Bush improved his popularity six points during the same period by saying absolutely nothing, suggesting fading voter memories were the biggest contributor to both men’s gains.

Yet, in some ways, this might be the best news possible for Cheney. It suggests Bush will be a lighter to non-existent millstone around the neck of whoever the 2012 Republican nominee turns out to be, even someone as close to Bush as Cheney.

The current top GOP contenders among Republican voters are Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin, with others, such as Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, waiting in the wings. A second argument for Cheney insists that for all his unpopularity, he brings strengths and escapes weaknesses that none of these other Republican candidates can match.

At a time when many voters are expressing everything from apprehension to downright hostility about President Obama’s expansion of federal government, Cheney has views and a record standing in stark contrast. Domestically, he promotes cutting taxes aggressively. Internationally, he promotes American hegemony around the globe just as aggressively. In all other matters, he wants the federal government out of people’s lives. The only exception is national security, where he defends all intrusions (at least so far) as necessary and proper.

Douthat notes that Cheney “kept his distance from the Bush Administration’s attempts at domestic reform and had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his boss’s policy agenda.” Roff agrees, arguing that precisely because Cheney “was never considered a part of the so-called Christian Right, he would unify and perhaps re-energize the Reagan coalition in ways that few if any of the potential GOP candidates could.”

The point above would resonate with particular strength among Independent voters. Along those same lines, Meacham contends that, win or lose, “it seems much more likely that Cheney would pull Obama to the right than Obama would pull Cheney to the left. I think it is safe to say that neither a Huckabee nor a Palin bid would have the same effect.”

Finally, Simon observes, “[Cheney] is very, very good on TV. People who don’t like what he says overlook how good he is at saying it. He is calm, articulate and often courageous.”

A Cheney candidacy remains highly unlikely if only because Cheney himself adamantly refuses to consider a future in politics and has done so since first elected Vice-President. A remark by Kay Bailey Hutchison during a Republican rally in Texas got some in the crowd pleading with Cheney to run. “Not a chance,” Cheney responded.

Many would argue that other candidates, particularly Palin, have youth and vitality to bring the GOP success that Cheney lacks. There is also his health to consider – especially his multiple heart attacks.

Yet with his many years in corporate business and experience in government – both Legislative and Executive – Cheney provides a known gravitas that many fear Palin lacks and possibly cannot learn. Moreover, he lacks extremism on some social views that had made Palin and Huckabee so religious-right scary to many Independents last time.

Perhaps Palin’s greatest weakness is not that she is the anti-Obama in her conservatism but that she seems too similar to him, albeit in the opposite direction. Like Obama, she is highly charismatic but with many unknowns and doubts about her qualifications.

Independents suffering buyer’s remorse over the “trust me, hope and change” progressive package Obama sold them in 2008 may easily balk at a similar sales pitch from Palin in 2012. Even a desired direction change may seem unpalatable if it once again involves too large/fast a swing. Cheney is far more the immovable object in opposition to Obama’s irresistible force.

Is Cheney as resistant to holding further political office as he claims? Many suspect Palin resigned the Alaska Governor’s office to devote time to making the political talk circuits and writing a book in preparation to a 2012 run. Interestingly, Cheney is doing exactly the same thing.

Even assuming Cheney’s retirement was as sincere as he insists, might not his dismay and outrage over Democrat’s left-leaning (think “socialist”) agenda and plans to undo/weaken much of the Bush Administration’s goals/accomplishments, propel him back into the fray? As I would not question Obama’s basic patriotism, so I will not doubt the same in Cheney.

Perhaps a Cheney candidacy is nothing but an intriguing mental exercise for bored pundits at a nadir in the four year Presidential political cycle. Or perhaps the GOP’s future lies with a piece of its too quickly discarded past. See Dick run? Run, Dick, run!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Colored Perceptions

An Intriguing Study May Suggest Extremist Political Partisanship Is the New Racism

Psychologists demonstrated long ago that from the moment we first glimpse a stranger, human beings start drawing conclusions about that person. New research suggests those conclusions affect the picture we come to draw of that person in our minds, even down to details supposedly as factual as skin tone.

Eugene Caruso, a social psychologist and researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has completed analyzing the results of several experiments soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Caruso has a lifelong interest in how people’s perspectives affect they way they view “indisputable” hard data. In his first experiment, Caruso showed graduate students one of two photographs of a biracial candidate for a hypothetical position in local government. Caruso digitally lightened the candidate’s skin tone in one photo and darkened it in the other. He also quizzed students about their views on a variety of topical issues.

Caruso told every student the candidate agreed with him or her on about half the issues and disagreed with him or her on the other half. He then asked students if they would support the candidate for the position. Caruso found, with all things equal on the issues, that students shown the photo with darkened skin were significantly less likely to endorse the candidate than students shown the photo with lightened skin.

The study confirms previous findings by scientists, according to Keith Maddox, a psychology researcher at Tufts University. He says American society contains long-held cultural prejudices whereby we view light/white things as being positive and dark/black things as being negative.

Caruso was interested whether the association worked in the opposite direction, so he turned his first experiment on its head. This time, he used the most well known actual biracial politician in America – President Obama.

A few weeks before the 2008 election, he asked approximately two hundred students to identify their political/ideological affiliations as well as whether they intended to vote for Obama. Then he showed each of them three photographs and asked which one was “most representative” of Obama to them. One photograph left Obama’s skin tone its natural shade. The other two photos digitally lightened and darkened Obama’s skin tone respectively.

Caruso found liberals were twice as likely as conservatives to opt for the light skin photo, while conservatives were significantly more likely than liberals to choose the dark skin photo. Even when he controlled for racial attitudes by using standard tests designed to measure prejudice, the preferences persisted.

Caruso notes the partisan influence only works for biracial candidates. Students shown similar doctored photographs of John McCain provided no correlation between preferences for lighter/darker skin tones based on political or ideological affiliation. Some ambiguity in racial identify is necessary before the subconscious consistently overrides what the eyes are actually seeing or the conscious mind actually knows.

Still, “Our beliefs . . . in this case our political beliefs, can really have pretty profound effects on how we see the world,” concludes Caruso.

Some who have previewed Caruso’s research in advance have hailed it as groundbreaking. “This is the first study to show how the impact of political allegiances can extend down to our literal perception of the physical world and the people in it,” lauds David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell University.

Yet others have raised valid criticisms. Most notably, only about ten percent of the students surveyed were non-white. Caruso acknowledges this sample is too small but insists their results “trended” in the same directions as those of white respondents.

The counterargument runs that people are likely to see those they agree with on important issues as more like themselves and those they disagree with as less like themselves. This would explain the preference for the lighter Obama photo by like-minded whites and so forth. Given a large enough sample, African Americans with lighter skin might prefer the digitally lighter Obama, while those with darker skin would opt for the digitally darker Obama.

Even if true, however, this only casts aspersion on the study’s assumption of “light = good, dark = bad” as an all-encompassing cultural norm. It would not change the underlying finding that political preferences can influence how we perceive skin color.

Diana Owen, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, criticizes the study for insufficient controls over photos already manipulated by researchers. For example, the Obama photo with darkened skin shows him in a business suit while the photo with lightened skin shows in casual attire. How do we know respondents were not influenced by clothing preferences, queries Owen?

While Caruso’s initial research needs confirmation and further study, he raises some intriguing possible insights concerning the bitter charges of racism and reverse racism raised by those on both sides of the political spectrum following the election of a man billed as the first post-racial President.

Liberals maintain lingering racial prejudice, rather than fears of socialism, drive the fierce Republican opposition in Congress to Obama’s key legislative issues as well as supposedly grass roots demonstrations, such as “tea parties.” Conservatives scoff at these claims. They point to statements by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Eric Holder as well as Barack and Michelle Obama that they say reflects a persistent anti-white bias.

Yet what if blaming racism on political partisanship is actually putting the cart before the horse? Caruso’s research suggests that rather than racism, either consciously or subconsciously, causing some politicians and voters to view Obama with over-hostility, as former President Jimmy Carter contentiously suggested several months ago, it may be intense politically disagreement subconsciously causing a racial element to be re-injected into the debate. The same would be true for the opposite side, with liberal white guilt as a catalyst.

We continue becoming so polarized that it is increasingly common to hear statements like, “All Democrats believe . . .” or “All conservatives like . . .” just as we would once have heard ignorant statements along the lines “All whites believe . . .” or “All blacks like . . .”. We continue to pigeonhole individuals and our reactions to them increasingly on the sole basis of their political Party or for whom they voted in the last election, as we would have once classified them by race or skin tone.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Hate, like any energy, cannot be created or destroyed so much as it just changes form. Racism, while it still exists, does not have the same impact on American culture and politics that it once did. The election of a biracial President twelve months ago stands in stark defiance to its enduring sway. Sadly, however, Caruso’s research suggest that extremist political partisanship, which raises its ugly head far too often on both sides of the ideological spectrum, is itself the new racism in a so-called post racial America.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pulling Down the Monsters

America Needs to De-Mythologize Terrorists at Guantanamo

It is now over eight years since the devastating attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Many argue that, despite the passage of time, our country needs to remain vigilant against terrorism; they point to the recent shootings at Fort Hood as proof that further terror attacks by Muslims on U.S. soil are very possible. They maintain we must mount a credible defense by dealing with terrorists in a realistic, pragmatic, and knowledgeable manner.

I could not agree more with this assessment. Perhaps the most important first step for America, in my opinion, is a need to de-mythologize the degree of threat and fear we consciously and subconsciously have woven around terrorists, particularly Islamic extremists. Unfortunately, reactions to recent government decisions/announcements suggest we have made little progress in this area.

The first example is the possibility of transferring about one hundred of the detainees currently located at Guantanamo Bay to an almost unused maximum security prison, located in the small town of Thompson Illinois.

Republican Representatives Mark Kirk, Don Manzullo, Judy Biggert and Peter Roskam of Illinois held a news conference in Chicago on Monday, where they characterized the prospect as “too risky.” One month earlier, Kirk was among Republicans lawmakers voting to allow Guantanamo detainees to come to U.S. soil for trial after reading a risk assessment. Yet two days ago, he warned that housing them in northwestern Illinois would cause Chicago to become “ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots.”

Folks in Thompson do not buy that argument, saying Chicago is already a target just by virtue of being a major city. “They're always in jeopardy anyway for attacks,” scoffed a local resident, hanging out with his friends at a bait shop near the prison.

Manzullo, whose district includes the Thomson prison, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I adamantly oppose this plan to bring the terrorists to northwestern Illinois, where they could one day be released into our communities.”

“Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the President . . . [is] poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison,” bemoaned Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft.

Thompson locals refuse to panic over these trepidations either. “I've got plenty of weapons and ammunition at my house,” boasted Dave Lawton, a sixty-two year old retiree.

The second ruckus is over Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other accused masterminds of the September 11 attacks in civilian courts, especially at the New York City federal courthouse, located a mere thousand yards from Ground Zero.

Former New York Mayor Rudy “Did I Mention 9/11?” Giuliani told FOX News Sunday, “This seems to be an over concern with the rights of terrorists and a lack of concern for the rights of the public.”

More serious, and certainly more moving, were concerns expressed by the family members of New Yorkers who died in the attacks. The city's wounds are simply still too raw, explained Lee Ielpi, whose son was a firefighter. “Ripping that scab open will create a tremendous hardship.”

Debra Burlingame, sister to one of the pilots from the hijacked airliners, objected not merely to the venue but also the prospect of civilian trials, calling them a “travesty.” She predicted Mohammed would ridicule the judge as well as his own lawyers and rally other Islamic extremists to his cause. She said “the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their attorneys” sickened her.

Many of these same fears surfaced several years ago when the U.S. tried Zacarias Moussaoui in civilian court. Edward MacMahon, one of Moussaoui’s lawyers, downplays such an outcome, saying, “Federal judges deal all the time with defendants who try to disrupt cases.” That was certainly the case with District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who kept an iron control over the proceedings. “I've reached the conclusion that the system does work,” she said in 2008.

Interestingly, so has Moussaoui. “I had thought that I would be sentenced to death based on the emotions and anger toward me . . . but after reviewing the jury verdict and reading how the jurors set aside their emotions and disgust for me and focused on the law and the evidence . . . I now see that it was possible that I could receive a fair trial.”

A “fair outcome” may be exactly what those opposed to civilian trials fear most. They have already tried and convicted the Guantanamo detainees in their own minds and fear the prisoners will be able to escape rightful punishment on legal technicalities, such as disallowing confessions and/or other evidence because it was obtained under torture.

Even now, fifteen federal judges in the Washington D.C. district courthouse are hearing cases brought by the government against Guantanamo detainees. So far, the judges have rejected pleas for release from eight detainees but concluded the government did not have enough evidence to keep thirty others behind bars. Testimony obtained during interrogations that included torture was far from the only reason that judges found the government’s cases wanting.

“Much of the factual material contained in [the] exhibits is hotly contested for a host of different reasons ranging from the fact that it contains second- and third-hand hearsay . . . to the fact that no statement purports to be a verbatim account of what was said,” ruled District Judge Gladys Kessler in one case. “The evidentiary record is surprisingly bare,” wrote District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in another.

However, judges are balancing circumspection against lack of evidence when individual situations warrant it, such as the case of Adham Mohammed Ali Awad, to whom the court denied release. “The case against Awad is gossamer thin, consisting of raw intelligence, multiple levels of hearsay and documents whose authenticity cannot be proven, ruled District Judge James Robertson. “In the end, however, it appears more likely than not that Awad was, for some period of time, part of al-Qaida.”

The problem here goes beyond lack of trust in our own systems and institutions and comes back to rest on the concept of terrorists as somehow too powerful, too dangerous, too evil to be contained and properly tried on U.S. soil. If these terrorists are so invincible, how did they manage to fall into U.S. custody in the first place?

To be sure, some of them have directly committed heinous acts. Mohammed, for example, has claimed he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Richard Pearl. For the most part, however, they are the leaders, financiers, and arms merchants who send out others, usually younger martyrs, into battle. They not only have a callous hatred for innocent non-Muslim lives but show equal disregard for their so-called brothers.

They are thugs and cowards – certainly no better than, say, mafia dons but not demonstrably more awful, albeit they kill for ideology or religion rather than money, for prophets rather than profits.

The definition of “de-mythologize” says “to make less mysterious or apocryphal so as to give a more human character.” The point of humanization here is not to make terrorists more sympathetic but to place their formidability, while still very real, within the proper context. It is both smart and reasonable to fear these individuals and the organizations they represent but fearing them beyond all reason is simply foolish, leading to foolish policies and actions against them on our parts.

The bottom line is that we have already held and are currently holding civilian trials and hearings for terrorist on U.S. soil without suffering constant reprisal attacks or the proceeding turning into a three-ring circus or tour de force for the ACLU. Likewise, federal prison already house two hundred and sixteen known international terrorists and one hundred and thirty-nine domestic terrorists. Thirty-five such terrorists are located in Illinois, the site of the potential Guantanamo replacement. None has ever escaped.

In the end, terrorists are horrible men – but still men – who dare aspire to what is unimaginable evil for most people. This and this alone is their greatest source of power against us. On September 11, eight years ago, those aspirations reached high enough to pull down two of our country’s tallest buildings. Today, it is time for us to pull down the monsters from the platforms where we have raised them in a combination of fear and loathing. Only then will we be able to deal with them in a realistic, pragmatic, and knowledgeable manner.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Reality Television Isn’t Real But Far Too Often Deadly and Devastating

Ryan Jenkins, 32, hung himself from a coat rack in a Canadian hotel room after murdering his swimsuit model wife, Jasmine Fiore, in a jealous rage, mutilating her body, stuffing it in a suitcase, and tossing it in a Buena Park California dumpster.

Paula Goodspeed, 30, intentionally overdosed on a prescription drug while sitting in her car in front of the Los Angeles home of her Hollywood idol.

Kelli McGee, 30s, a native of Texas, “went all to pieces” and took a fatal overdose of pills and alcohol when her sister, Deleese Williams, learned Kelli had made unkind comments about her appearance – Williams suffers from a deformed jaw, droopy eyelids and crooked teeth – at the coaxing of others. McGee left behind two small children that her sister is now raising.

James Terrill, 37, a single father from Georgetown Kentucky, apparently unable to handle financial and parenting issues, called local police from a cemetery, threatening to shoot himself. After authorities spent an hour attempting to talk him out of it, Terrill made good on his threat.

Simon Foster, 40, of England started his downward slide when his wife, Jane, left him for her lesbian lover, taking the couple’s two young children with her. She subsequently divorced him. Foster then lost his job and ended up homeless. Police found him dead in a Brighton hotel room, having consumed excessive quantities of methadone and alcohol.

Sinisa Savija, 34, of Sweden threw himself under a train after an embarrassing experience left him “deeply depressed and agonized.” His widow, Nermina, said Savija felt he could not go on living as he had been too thoroughly “degraded as a person.”

Tania Saha, 21, of India swallowed poison after an acutely devastating rejection. She apparently brought a bottle of poison with her so as not to waste any time if the response was as negative as it turned out to be.

Tom Sparks, 33, a recent graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, complained of knee pain and shortness of breath after some moderate exertion. He was taken to a local hospital, where doctors eventually diagnosed he had suffered a stroke and was still bleeding within his brain. After transfer to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, surgeons operated on him several times but ultimately decided there was too much brain damage to save him. Sparks married two months earlier and had just returned from a European honeymoon.

All of the cases above are tragic in their own ways but one of them is different from the rest – can you guess which?

The obvious answer may seem to be the last one, as Sparks was the only person not to die by his own hand. The correct answer is actually the first case, although the fact that Jenkins is the only known murderer in the group is not the reason. While Jenkins, like all of the other people mentioned, was once a contestant on a reality television show, his death was the only one not likely a direct cause from his appearance on television or the immediate aftermath of it.

Goodspeed, a huge fan of Paula Abdul, failed to make it onto American Idol after a disastrous audition. McGee’s sister, scheduled to appear on Extreme Makeover, found herself cut at the last minute when her recovery time did not mesh well with the show’s schedule. Terrill appeared on the show Supernanny, which highlighted his inability to manage his out-of-control children.

Foster became a national laughingstock after appearing on the British version of Wife Swap. Savija was a contestant on Expedition, the forerunner of Survivor, where he was the first person voted off the island. Saha experienced rejection as a contestant for Fatafati, the Indian version of American Idol. Sparks was running an obstacle course on the show Wipeout when he first became ill.

The above represent extreme examples but the majority of reality television show appearances are negative, as the online Hollywood news site TheWrap documents in a series of articles beginning in May and running through August 2009. Mental-health workers have discovered that reality television competitors, including those who win, frequently suffer severe and often long-lasting psychological trauma as a result.

The first source of trauma is the often sweatshop-like conditions during filming. An investigative piece by the New York Times reveals that, sans union representation, contestants have no workplace rules governing meal breaks, long workdays, or minimum time off between shoots. Producers commonly sequester contestants, encourage them to drink large amounts of alcohol, deprive them of sleep, and push them past the point of exhaustion.

“The bread and butter of reality television is to get people into a state where they are tired, stressed and emotionally vulnerable,” explains Mark Andrejevic, author and Associate Professor of Communications Studies at the University of Iowa. “That helps make them more amenable to the goals of the producers and more easily manipulated.”

Whatever (stressed) human nature misses, producers are experts at filling in the chinks, carefully scrutinizing contestants in early episode to spot positive and negative archetypes. After that, simple editing out objectionable and sympathetic moments respectively is often the only thing needed to turn complex human beings into one-dimensional heroes and villains.

The second source of trauma is a feeling of abandonment once filming completes.

“Reality shows open wounds which no one can suture, so after your appearance you’re left to bleed to death,” says Miami psychologist Doctor Jamie Huysman. “The producers don’t care about the players, they care about the sponsors, who want confrontations and meltdowns – they love it when people cry or are browbeaten. That’s why the highest-rated shows are the ones where people get crushed emotionally.”

“[Contestants] underestimate how much stress they can deal with, agrees Doctor Michelle Callahan. That stress is not limited to fellow contestants or game playing on the show. Contestants must deal with millions of strangers commenting on how much their portrayal on television annoyed, angered, or disgusted them. Overweight contestants have proven especially subject to pillorying as “fat” by viewers.

The popularity of reality television among television producers is obvious. The shows are extremely popular with audiences tired of over-formulaic sitcoms and action dramas yet are cheap to make, requiring virtually no scripts and usually fewer other creative inputs. So why do audiences flock to this type of programming?

Some theorize that increased distrust in government, media, Wall Street and other institutions over recent decades have caused ordinary people to seek out heroes within their midst. However, it seems more likely to me that the popularity of such shows is a combination of vicarious sharing in the instant wealth/fame achieved by a few winners and primarily guilty pleasure in watching the failures of the vast majority of contestants.

A study conducted several years ago by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz of Ohio State University and published in the journal Media Psychology asked television viewers what shows they watched the most as well as rating themselves on each of sixteen basic motives. Their method, based on evidence, assumes that people prefer television shows that stimulate the feelings they intrinsically value the most.

Reiss and Wiltz found the two hundred and thirty-nine viewers surveyed who identified themselves as heavy reality television watchers were significantly more likely to feel self-important and, to a lesser extent, more likely to feel vindicated, friendly, free of morality, secure, and romantic as compared with television watchers in general.

Other studies have found no consistent demographic similarities among reality television fans with the exception of age group. Such shows are most popular with eighteen to twenty-four years olds, then begin losing popularity at a steady rate until they garner only one-eight the number of viewers among seventy-five years old and up.

The lion’s share of responsibility for understanding and dealing with the likely consequences from appearing on a reality television show rests with individuals choosing to compete on them. However, the systemic nature of the problem also argues for better screening among networks and producers.

Doctor Geoffrey White, who works as a therapist and consultant within the industry, argues against placing too much reliance on forms and interviews, where it is usually easy for most people to make a good impression. He believes placing potential contestants in two or three mock situations with other people and observing their behaviors to detect unstable personalities is a superior approach.

Reality television is not nearly as “real” as most viewers assume it to be. However, far too many contestants are finding its fun and games with a chance for fabulous cash and prizes to be an all-too-deadly undertaking. The popularity of these shows continues to mystify me personally. Yet even if there is no accounting for taste, common decency demands protecting participants from the worst and most dangerous of the exploitations currently forced upon them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Crazy for Allah

The Fort Hood Shooter Was a Psychotic, Then a Jihadist; Why Can’t He Be Both?

Veteran’s Day is always a solemn occasion but the sense of loss it entails was particularly keen for this year’s observance, given the recent events at Fort Hood. Major Nidal Hasan, an American of Arab/Islamic descent, killed thirteen people there and wounded over thirty more in a shooting spree. Who Hasan was has almost overshadowed the horror of what he did, particularly following revelations about what the government knew/suspected about him.

At first, officials downplayed Hasan’s background, characterizing the shootings as an assault by an unstable individual, acting alone, rather than an act of terrorism. Hasan’s shipment to Afghanistan for a tour of duty was imminent and authorities presumed this triggered a violent response. The term most often applied to the shootings in the early hours of reporting was “outburst.”

Then other disturbing aspects about Hasan started coming to light.

Prior to his deployment at Fort Hood, Hasan once gave a controversial briefing to his fellow doctors, in which he concluded, “It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims” and recommended Muslim soldiers be given the option of being released from the military as conscientious objectors.

Hasan regularly attended the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, a mosque in Falls Church Virginia once led by radical Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Investigators supposedly found emails to al-Qaida on Hasan’s confiscated computer, although it was unclear if the terrorist group ever contacted him back. In any case, investigators say Hasan first came to their attention at least six months ago because of Internet postings believed attributable to him that discussed suicide bombings and other threats.

Several witness claimed they heard Hasan shout out, “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great,” a traditional Islamic blessing during the shooting spree.

All this has left some characterizing the shootings as the largest single terrorist attack in America since September 11. These proponents fume that a misplaced desire for political correctness purposely caused the Army to disregard a dangerous Islamic jihadist and the mainstream media initially to downplay his Arab/Muslim background.

Walid Phares, a Senior Fellow at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, maintains in an op/ed piece for the FOXNews website, “What happened at Fort Hood is about the radicalization of individuals by an extremist ideology – jihadism – which fuels acts of terror. The main question we should be asking is when did Hasan become radicalized and who indoctrinated him?”

Personally, I fail to see the need to dichotomize Hasan in this manner. Why must he be either a psychotic or a jihadist? Why can’t he be both?

Hasan was born in this country by parents of Palestinian descent, who immigrated to the United States from a city in the West Bank, where his grandfather still lives. After high school, he joined the U.S. military. This was against the wishes of his parents, according to some sources. Whether this caused estrangement between Hasan and his family or whether they eventually reconciled is not clear. However, friends and acquaintances note he became demonstrably more religious after his parents died a decade ago.

While in the Army, Hasan earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech. He went on to medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, from which he earned his M.D. degree. Hasan then served a residency in psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including a fellowship in Disaster and Preventive Psychiatry at the Center for Traumatic Stress.

Hasan spent years at Walter Reed counseling soldiers who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, now suffering from debilitating physical wounds as well as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other severe mental problems. The Army promoted Hasan from Captain to Major in May 2009. Yet before his transfer to Fort Hood in July, Hasan received a poor performance evaluation for reasons that remain confidential. He received received counseling and extra supervision while an intern.

According to his cousin, Hasan’s army colleagues sometimes harassed him because of his Middle Eastern ethnicity. In his short time at Fort Hood, somebody vandalized Hasan’s car with a key for about $1000 in damage. Police eventually charged another soldier, known to disapprove of Hasan’s religion, for the incident.

None of this even remotely suggests that Hasan is somehow an innocent victim, driven to violence by the prejudice of his fellow soldiers. However, he is arch-typical of the sort of person that Islamic extremists seek out as prime recruits – a middle-class, well-educated young adult, the child or grandchild of immigrants, living in a Western country. The offspring of two cultures, Hasan felt neither accepted by nor fully part of either. Did Hasan undergo radicalization by some terrorist cell, as Phares and others suggest, or did his psychosis lead him to radicalize himself?

Exactly why Hasan felt some call back to his Arab/Islamic roots is unclear but he certainly gave ample warning signs of his growing inability to reconcile his Muslim heritage with his role as a U.S. soldier. If any part of the federal government knew about these warning signs and failed to act upon them, heads deserve to roll.

The military’s sudden transfer of Hasan to Fort Hood seems strange. It is hard to escape the feeling that an officer, exhibiting disturbing signs of mental instability, instead of being properly treated and perhaps even removed from duty, was quickly shuffled off to become someone else’s problem. Dozens at Fort Hood may have paid a high price, and some the ultimate price, because the military was unwilling to admit a young Muslim American of great promise had turned out to be a poor soldier or were simply unwilling to deal with the administrative nightmare of firing a doctor.

Perhaps Hasan joined the military as a covert means to act against America and strike a blow at it from within. More consistent with the facts, however, is the idea that he joined the Army in a burst of patriotic fervor for his family’s adopted country. The nature of his job within the military and the stress it entailed, as well as his own lack of an internal support system and coping mechanisms, may have slowly but surely caused him to turn to Islamic conservatism and finally extremism.

Hasan was a complicated person. His Islamic heritage certainly came to play a central role in his psychosis but was not necessarily the seed of it. The current imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center said he met with Hasan, apparently a lifelong bachelor, several times last year in an unsuccessful attempt to help him find a Muslim wife. In contrast, Hasan visited a strip club not far from Fort Hood at least three times within the last month, staying for more than six hours each visit, according to the club’s manager.

“It is common to mass shooters who have a sexual-romantic incompetence to redirect their masculinity through spectacular acts of destruction,” according to Doctor Michael Welner, chairman of The Forensic Panel in New York.

While political correctness, to the extent it interfered with identifying Hasan as troubled, is wrong and must be avoided in the future, so a witch hunt directed against all Muslim soldiers as ticking time bombs is equally mistaken.

Dan Ross, an elderly Christian man from Lehigh Acres Florida, attracted the attention of the FBI after he attempted to send a dozen yellow roses to Hasan. “It is the Christian commandment to love your enemies and to do good to them. I did that,” explained Ross. Interestingly, the florist who received the order, also a Christian, refused to fill it, arguing such an act went beyond compassion and suggested admiration.

It only goes to show that two Christians can have very different views on religious dogma and its application to “real life.” Likewise, Hasan was a soldier and a Muslim who descended into madness and committed an act of mass terror. Nonetheless, this does not mean we can presuppose his possibly insane actions as typical to all Muslim soldiers serving in the U.S. military. It would be unfortunate if this tragic incident caused the Army to lose completely the disciplined restraint it has exercised in this area since September 11.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thriving Fear and Sick Hyperbole

They Represent Republicans’ Two Weapons Against Healthcare Reform Legislation

Yesterday, conservatives gathered in the thousands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a Tea Party-style protest against the healthcare reform bill currently moving through the House of Representatives. “This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen,” House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio warned the crowd. Boehner then collapsed and was rushed to a local DC hospital, where he received treatment for what doctors there described as one of the worst cases of hyperbole they had ever seen.

Okay, I made that last part up.

As Boehner exhorted on the protestors, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff took on a criticism of healthcare reform posited by many conservative activists. Namely, that reform is completely unnecessary because healthcare in the U.S., in its current state, is just fine. Proponents often take their assertions a notch higher. Not only is U.S. healthcare better than that in foreign nations featuring socialized medicine, it is paramount.

Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, sneezing out a strain of calumny nearly as virulent as that of Boehner’s, has said that Obamacare amounts to “the first step in destroying the best healthcare system the world has ever known.”

However, Kristoff demonstrates that U.S. health statistics do not stack up so well against those of other industrialized nations, including the ones with socialized medicine. The only U.S. demographic group consistently getting healthcare equal to or better than their international peers are those over sixty-five years of age – the ones on Medicare, a government-run universal coverage healthcare program.

It is true, Kristoff concedes, that the wait to see some specialists or have certain operations performed is shorter in the U.S. than some foreign countries. Then again, one valid reason for this may be that foreign doctors do not face pressure from private insurance companies to push patients out of hospitals as quickly as possible. Is it better to get the fastest cure possible or the best cure possible? The answer, of course, is that getting both is best. The point remains that what we have today is, at best, a tradeoff and not a triumph over the rest of the planet.

I am not trying to make an argument here that U.S. healthcare system is horrible. In fact, it is effective on many levels. On the other hand, its clear superiority to the rest of the world, much as jingoistic national pride might wish to believe in such, simply does not exist. Even if what we have is good, better is demonstrably possible.

The reason this particular falsehood maintains so much traction, beyond our patriotic bias, must surely derive from poll after poll finding a majority of Americans with health insurance declare themselves satisfied with it and the level/quality of care they receive. Even so, at some level, we realize the need for improvement because the same polls also find a strong if seemingly contradictory desire by Americans for reform.

Why, then, do so many of us insist we are happy with what we already have and regard so skeptically any legislation currently being proposed? A recent Rasmussen survey found that fifty-five percent believe passage of healthcare reform legislation would increase the cost of healthcare and fifty-two percent believe it will reduce quality of care.

I believe the answer lies in the finding that a whopping seventy-two percent of those polled believe it likely companies will drop insurance coverage for employees in reform’s wake.

For many years, American workers in all but the smallest companies received health insurance coverage at their employers’ expense. It was a “benefit” for being a productive citizen of the most powerful nation on Earth at a time of economic largesse. The insurance provided was probably imperfect but with medical costs generally within the means of most middle class families, protection against catastrophic loss from a severe long-term illness was the only worry and this was, or at least appeared, covered.

The only people who did not have health insurance were those who were unemployed or held the lowest-skilled jobs and our culture often viewed either condition as an indictment against the effected individuals for being uneducated and/or unmotivated.

Then, as medical costs began to rise, companies began playing hardball with employee, including those in unions, over healthcare benefits. Either employees must begin contributing part of the expense for their coverage or the company would cut jobs. Loss of a job was a potential threat because few affordable alternatives to employer-based health insurance were rare. However, despite rising healthcare costs, the economy was growing at an unprecedented clip and unemployment was low, thereby allowing a kind of uneasy equilibrium to prevail.

In recent years, as the economy soured and jobs began vanishing overseas as a result of globalization and other factors, the threat of job loss became long-term and the loss of health insurance with it. Simultaneously, medical costs continued growing to the point that even relatively routine care became ruinous for middle class and even some affluent families.

Employer-based health insurance was more imperfect than ever yet Americans felt pressured to stick with it more than ever because the alternative was almost certain devastation and poverty. Workers also became resistant to any insurance changes, fearing switches by employers to new insurance providers to get better deals. A new provider could mean switching doctors or hospitals and/or introduced the possibility of denials for “pre-existing conditions.”

Even worse, as unemployment soared and the cost of health insurance made it prohibitive in any form to more families, nothing changed in our underlying beliefs regarding them. Being unemployed and uninsured is still something more to be ashamed than outraged over, more a reflection on individual inadequacies than problems or unfairness in the system. In such a situation, it does not take much stoking by those opposed to reform, for various reasons of their own, to generate fear and panic among Americans about potential changes.

If genuine satisfaction on the part of most with the insurance they have today truly were the primary driver behind opposition to healthcare reform legislation, then I would have to agree that President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders are suffering from mixed-up priorities or worse. However, I believe many Americans are inclined to rate their current coverage as “satisfactory” based not on its merits but due to vague but potent fears regarding its loss.

Part of the reasoning behind universal coverage and a public option is to reduce some of the shortcomings of the current employer-based system. Yet terror of the traditional “no man’s land” that has existed beyond employer coverage for health insurance may well be a major driver behind public opposition to this solution. Boehner can talk all he wants about “threats to freedom” but the current system, intentionally or otherwise, has been all about limiting choices for years.

In light of this, Congressional Democrats more than ever need to place doing the right thing over doing what is popular. Fortunately, for Republicans, fear of losing popularity is a potent weapon against politicians facing re-election bids in 2010. It is certainly more potent than what is apparently their only other weapon in this fight – hyperbole.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winning in 2009

Republicans Got the Rejection of Democratic Progressivism They Wanted But Not Necessarily a Corresponding Embrace of Conservatism

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” is a famous sports cliché attributed to Red Sanders, UCLA head football coach in days of yore. Politicians love sports metaphors, so we can be sure that Republicans will argue the only races that mattered last night were the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, while Democrats will counter the key contest was the Congressional race in New York’s 23rd District.

At a national level, any impartial analysis must view last night’s election as a major victory for Republicans, if only because the momentum Democrats had been building for the past three years in key races was finally broken. Despite personally campaigning for the Democratic candidates, Republicans gained impressive wins in two states that President Obama carried only a year ago. Always an important and sought-after demographic, Independent voters supported the GOP by nearly two-to-one margins in both states this time around.

None of this was especially surprising, albeit disheartening, for Democrats. One need only have glanced at polls over the past six months to see Obama’s popularity greatly reduced since his election and the Republican candidate well out in front in Virginia. New Jersey was more uncertain but signs of impending doom still hung over it.

However, I must point out another aggrandizement for which Red Sanders is famous. Referring to his Bruins’ legendary rivalry with USC, Sanders once avowed that beating the Trojans was “not a matter of life or death; it's more important than that.” Republicans need to avoid their natural desire to read more into these victories than is actually there.

If they cannot avoid this temptation, then what are they to gather from the New York Congressional race, where Democrat Bill Owens neatly won a seat held by Republicans since the 1890s? And this victory came even after the far-right branch of the Party interjected a die-hard conservative (i.e. the only “real” kind of Republican) into the fray, and bestowed blessing upon him from its highest national figures, when the local GOP decided to run what they saw as an insipid moderate.

The answer is that while 2009 represented every bit the rejection of Obama and Democratic progressive radicalism that Republicans desired, it did not necessarily embrace the return to traditional conservative values by voters that many assumed would automatically flow from this.

Republicans never questioned the basic conservatism of Chris Christie or Bob McDonnell but that is exactly what allowed them to avoid the kind of litmus tests within their own Party that helped doom John McCain last year. Instead, both were able to campaign primarily on positive, pragmatic ideas to control their respective states’ budgets, create jobs, and generally stimulate their local economies.

The result was very different in New York, where right-wingers placed a great deal of emphasis on Doug Hoffman’s social conservatism. What is more, many local political observers agree the rapid inroads made by Hoffman had little to do with conservative credentials and more with his outsider status and push for spending restraint.

The bottom line is that voters, especially Independents, remain extremely distrustful of both Parties and anything that smacks of extremism in ideology or policy. It was a bad year for incumbents, both individual candidates and Parties, that should send a warning shot across the bow for any sitting politicians up for re-election in 2010 or 2012.

The other quirk in these three key races was the presence/absence of a third person upon the results. In New York, the original third-party spoiler candidate was Hoffman, although the formal Republican candidate, Dierdre Scozzafava, eventually took on this role. She endorsed Owens and given that her views were often closer to her Democratic rival, it seems likely that much of the six percent she polled might actually have gone to him, rather than Hoffman, in her absence.

Likewise, although Independent challenger Chris Daggett picked up only five percent of the vote in New Jersey, an Associated Press exit poll found that two-thirds of Daggett voters approved of Obama, suggesting they were more likely to lean Democratic. This might have been enough to make a difference in a race decided by a four point spread.

The third man in Virginia may be less obvious to most but I would argue it was outgoing Governor Tim Kaine. By far the most popular and strongest Democratic challenger in Virginia, term limits barred Kaine from running. That put all the pressure on second-stringer Creigh Deeds, who quickly proved he was not ready for the varsity.

Deed’s greatest mistake was that he simply never ran for Governor, preferring to run instead against the specter of a social conservative gaining office. That technique worked poorly for Democrats in 2004 and just as poorly for Republicans warning about the dangers of unchecked liberalism, later socialism, in 2006 and 2008. Voters are tired of negative campaigning. Neither Party is likely to prevail just by demonizing the other next year.

For Democrats, I believe voter dissatisfaction stems not so much from the direction they are attempting to go as it does an ability to achieve any discernible (by them) progress/results. Legislative victories are the only answer to this dissatisfaction. Healthcare reform may well provide some approval, especially if the disasters predicted upon its passage do not immediately materialize. However, Democrats must pair healthcare with job creation and some budget slashing that will be distasteful to liberals.

Republicans, on the other hand, have every reason to be jubilant over what they achieved last night. Yet they also must keep it in perspective. Much like Democrats, they need to offer solid, practical alternative solutions. Their attempt at creating their own version of a healthcare reform bill is a good first step in this direction.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board observes this morning, “None of this is to say that Mr. Obama or the Democrats are about to be swept out to sea.” In spite of this, I understand the conservative pundits who are convinced this morning that last night’s elections represent the prelude to an inevitable GOP win-back of Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012. They are simply calling ’em the way they see ’em. I just don’t think they are seeing all that clearly at the moment.

What I see is that when Republicans pair a well-chosen, smart conservative candidate against a weak and unpopular Democratic incumbent, they can achieve positive results. When no Democratic incumbent is present and Republicans pair a well-chosen, smart conservative candidate against a weak and ineffectual Democratic challenger, they can achieve very impressive results indeed.

However, sans an incumbent, when Republicans pair a smart but nationally inserted, ideologically-chosen conservative candidate against a well-chosen, smart Democratic challenger, the results are not always to their liking. What is more, if Obama has lost trust and influence among voters, conservative heavy hitters seem no more persuasive. Sarah Palin may be able to see Russia from Alaska but her perspective of what upstate New York voters really want proved occluded.

Winning in 2009 is the only thing for Republicans. It remains, however, slightly less significant than life or death.