Saturday, August 29, 2009

Clarity and the Joy of Living

Don't know what made me pick it up, but I am really enjoying The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret of Science and Happiness by Tibetan monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. An interesting thought for the day from a section on clarity:

As this [clarity] begins to happen, the sense of difference between "self" and "other" gives way to a gentler and more fluid sense of identification with other beings and the world around us. And it's through this sense of identification that we start to recognize that the world may not be such a scary place after all: that enemies aren't enemies but people like ourselves, longing for happiness and seeking it the best way they know how, and that everyone possesses the insight, wisdom, and the understanding to see past apparent differences and discover solutions that benefit not just ourselves but everyone around us.

If you agree, or find this insightful, be sure to pass it on.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Politics of Crazy

In the past eight years, I have been greatly disappointed - if not outright disgusted - at people comparing President Bush and President Obama to Adolf Hitler, or the Democrats and Republicans to Nazis. These sort of statements are not only absurd and inflammatory, they are immensely sad and disrespectful to people who actually suffered at the hands of one of the most evil men in history. I understand analogies and hyperbole as rhetorical techniques, but there is a point where political discourse simply veers into the land of "crazy talk."

That is the subject of Rick Pearlstein's op-ed in the Washington Post today. He begins with an irate citizen at a Congressional town-hall meeting. The citizen offered the following to his senator:

"One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill. And then you will get your just deserts." He was accusing Arlen Specter of being too kind to President Obama's proposals to make it easier for people to get health insurance.

Now, that's just crazy. It's not only crazy, but it is so counter-productive and depressing.

Pearlstein's article is slanted toward criticism of the most recent outrage and protests at the town hall meetings. Thus the "crazy" is definitely more represented by conservatives and Republicans in this case. He follows with explanations of other outrageous behavior by conservatives, and he posits that the real craziness seems to happen more with conservatives and Republicans than with liberals and Democrats. As I read his piece, and think back over the past thirty years, I fear he may be right.

Granted, there are some real nut jobs on the left. From the Earth Liberation Front spiking trees and burning down resorts to the bombings by the Weatherman to the conspiracy theories about the Bush Administration allowing, or even planning, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, there are some nuts out there in Democrat-land. However, when I think of the most deadly American terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, I see the right-wing. While the Weatherman and the eco-terrorists have set bombs, they seemed to try and avoid killing people en masse. Not McVeigh. When a man turned up at a town hall meeting on health care with a gun and talked of shedding "the blood of tyrants," he was right wing.

The frivolous talk of "tyranny" - over something like government stimulus spending nonetheless - comes from the right wing. People who - bizarrely - yell at their congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare" (?) are right wing. People who tend to talk about the end of American civilization if we raise taxes are right wing. Immigration brings out rabid responses from the right. On the left, we've had immigration advocates speaking with heartfelt concerns about poor families being torn apart over immigration law, while on the right we had a congressman in Colorado callously say after two latino children who were hit crossing a street, that they wouldn't be dead if they hadn't broken the law. Really? That's a lawmaker's response to two children dying in a hit-an-run accident?

I admit that too many people on both sides let their passion get in the weigh of their politics. But lately it seems that the right is more likely to cross the line into crazy and violence - abortion-rights advocates haven't, as far as I know, bombed pro-life centers. I mean, passion is one thing, but hanging a congressman in effigy - over health care - is downright disturbing. Believing that the Bush Administration or the Obama Administration has sold out American sovereignty to the United Nations is crazy. Fearing that the program Teach for America is going to be used to indoctrinate an "Obama Youth Corps" is crazy. Telling your Congressman you don't want our country to become Russia is crazy. Believing for even a nanosecond about the possibility of "death panels" in a health care bill is crazy. And using violence and aggression to address political issues such as taxes and health care in the United States is crazy.

There is simply too much irrationality these days, and I believe much of it comes from ignorance and naivete. And I have to say that these days it seems like conservatives and the right wing of the Republican Party have the monopoly on "crazy." So, where is the most "crazy" - liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans? Which side is the least rational? Which side is the most likely to spout off bizarre, conspiratorial positions? Which side is more violent? Which side is most likely to be dangerous? Which side is more easily manipulated by their demagogues? Which side is more easily whipped into a frenzy? Which side is scarier? Which side of "crazy" is worse for America?

What do you think?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Glenn Beck's "Common Sense" is a Sham

Well, I just finished Glenn Beck’s “Common Sense,” which, according to Beck, was “Inspired by Thomas Paine.” Beck has clearly never truly read Thomas Paine and knows very little about him, his history, or his beliefs. For many readers, pages one to seven seem to make a lot of sense. There are some general and specific criticisms about government spending and corruption in Congress I agree with. Who wouldn’t? But Beck’s attempt to connect his neo-conservative positions with Founding Father Thomas Paine is shockingly ignorant of both Paine and American history.

Beck uses this book – and Paine’s name – to criticize “Progressivism,” blaming it for much of what ails the country. Sadly, this is a complete distortion of Paine’s legacy. While the extent of most Americans’ knowledge of Paine is “he wrote Common Sense," I teach his work in class every year. I've use “The Crisis” and selections from “The Rights of Man” and “Age of Reason.” If you want to understand Paine and his vision for America, you should read them. Beck doesn’t understand Paine, but he does want to use the credibility of “The Founding Fathers” to promote an anti-government message.
Far from opposing “progressivism,” Thomas Paine is one of the original “Progressives,” though at the time he was called a radical for his liberal views. He is commonly associated with the origins of American liberalism. “Common Sense” was one small piece of his work – it was a pamphlet simply designed to encourage revolution against Britain. Paine later clearly outlined his vision of what he thought American government should look like. This is where Beck falls off the apple cart.

Beck uses this book to openly criticize progressive taxation, public education, social security, and “the progressive agenda.” But readers should know something – Thomas Paine was one of the earliest advocates of progressive taxation, even drawing up tables and rates.

He was also the first proponent of the estate tax. And in Agrarian Justice he proposed combating poverty and income inequality by taxing the wealthy to give jobs and “grants” to young people. He also proposed using this system to provide government-sponsored pensions for the elderly. Paine’s Agrarian Justice can be considered the earliest call for a national old-age pension – ie. Social Security. He wanted to tax the rich and give money to the poor.

He joined Thomas Jefferson in strongly advocating universal tax-supported public education, believing it was necessary to promote an educated electorate and was a necessary way to combat poverty. Paine also sought a federally guaranteed minimum wage, and long before Woodrow Wilson, Paine urged the establishment of, and US participation in, global organizations to help solve international problems and avoid wars.

Yet, this is all lost on Glenn Beck.

Beck criticizes Progressives for leading the United States away from its original purpose. He even goes as far as chastising Teddy Roosevelt. That’s pretty bold for a guy whose only contribution to the United States has been as an entertainer. Has Glenn Beck completely forgotten “The Gilded Age”? While Beck, for whatever reason, is disturbed by progressive ideals, he fails to concede the un-democratic conditions that led to the desire of Americans for the rise of progressive reforms.

In fact, if you look at American history from 1776 to 1900 and from 1900 to present, you will see that Beck is right in that progressives shaped America into the country that it is. It’s one with a thriving middle class, reasonably safe food and water, no child labor, forty hour workweeks, etc. If Beck wants to dismiss Progressives and return to life under President McKinley or Harding with robber barons running the economy and the atrocious work conditions chronicled by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, he’s crazy. Beck has never known what it would be like to live in an America not guided by the leadership of progressives. Instead, he lives comfortably in a nation defined by liberal and progressive policies, and then audaciously challenges the very notion of the peaceful prosperity they provide.
Beck ironically praises “our political leaders” that could inspire us to “defeat Nazism and fascism,” and then goes on to criticize that leader - FDR - as helping destroy the country. Beck doesn’t even concede that the United States would never have been able to wage WWII or build the Atomic Bomb or put a man on the moon or wage and win the Cold War if it weren’t for the large-scale ability of the federal government to raise revenue, mainly through progressive taxation. He reviews the original foundation of the United States government in the Articles of Confederation, acknowledging that it failed because it was too weak, and then heaps his praise on the Constitution. However, he doesn’t concede that the significant difference in power given to the federal government in the Constitution was the power to levy taxes. Even conservative Edmund Burke knew that “the revenue of the state is the state.” Thus, weak revenue gathering equals weak government. And a weak federal government would never have been able to respond to two World Wars, the Cold War, and two Iraq wars.

Beck goes on to criticize Hillary Clinton and the public education system for “suggesting the community has a vested interest in what each child is taught.” Who doesn’t believe that? He offers no alternative proposals for how education should be carried out. Though I hardly believe he is proposing the end of public education. That would be so un-Jeffersonian, another Founding Father.
On page 99, Beck shifts from a scathing criticism of public education to promote God and religion in public life. This is completely disingenuous in a book “inspired by Thomas Paine.” Paine was a deist who vigorously opposed Christianity or any organized religion. He often called himself an atheist. Paine was very anti-Christianity. He vehemently opposed the government supporting religion in any way. In fact, in his later life, he was practically exiled from the country because of his criticism of religion in America.

A few other criticisms:

On page 61, Beck paraphrases Barry Goldwater’s (or some attribute Gerald Ford) quote, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have,” and he doesn’t even give the original speaker credit.

On page 17, Beck paraphrases the well-known “You can’t save the poor by destroying the rich” quote from Reverend William J. H. Boetcke and again doesn’t give credit. Historians and English teachers call this plagiarism.

Finally, Beck writes a mere 111 pages, and then re-prints all of Paine’s “Common Sense” which is in the public domain – and he charges $12.00 for the book. What a sham. I’m glad I checked it out of the library, but I hate that my library spent taxpayer funds on it. They should have waited until it was in the bargain bin for $.99

That’s why Beck is disingenuous. He is a hack, and while I occasionally enjoyed some of his earlier work – I’ve read all three of his books – I am sadly disappointed in this mis-use of one of America’s Founding Fathers. Beck says Americans do not know their history, but he is one of them, and with this book he is counting on their ignorance. Ultimately, this book is a poorly-written piece of neo-conservative fear-mongering. Perhaps saddest of all in a book "inspired by" a Founding Father, Glenn Beck says he "fears" the end of the republic. What a profound lack of faith in the very people and institution he praises. What an absolute insult to every true patriot who has ever laid his life on the line for the republic. As Republican Bob Inglis recently noted, "This is a constitutional republic that can withstand any president I disagree with." If the United States has managed to survive all the trials it has - from the Civil War to the Gilded Age to the Great Depression and beyond, it will survive today.

It will even survive fear-peddling "rodeo clowns" who are ignorant of its history.

** And for those of you who haven't heard the latest nonsense, Glenn Beck is at it again.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Farewell, John Hughes

Sad news out of Chicago - or thereabouts - today. According to a press release, John Hughes, the legendary 80s teen-film director, passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, today at the age of 59. The statement was attributed to Rogers and Cowen, which I assume is a law firm or management company. Hughes was on vacation in Manhattan and had a heart attack while taking a walk.

As a child of the 80s, I am deeply saddened by this news. Perhaps no director in history has more accurately portrayed the lives of teens on film. He almost single-handedly re-defined cinema in the 1980s. Even today, when teens are polled about which movies most accurately resemble their lives, they quote such classics as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. That's a pretty powerful testament for films which are almost thirty years old. A recent documentary-in-progress entitled "Don't You Forget About Me" was meant to be a call to Hughes to come out of retirement and again make films that speak to teens, honestly and without condescension. Sadly, that is not to be.

In the words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around sometimes, you might miss it." Hughes helped all of us do that, and his impact will not soon be forgotten.

Rest in peace.