Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unitarian Universalism's statement on peacemaking

An interesting article on the discussion within the UUA about the organization's statement on peacemaking.  It involves dialog between pacisfists and "just war" advocates.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

God Help Us . . . Please!

I came across this story about right-wing pastors engaging in “imprecatory prayer,” which involves asking for the death of someone, that someone in this case being President Obama.

A lot of interesting questions arise. If we had (as many of those practicing imprecatory prayer would like) a system of government overtly based on Christian principles, would such a prayer constitute treason? That is, if we as a nation believed that intercessory prayer has real power, wouldn’t this sort of prayer be considered not only treason, but attempted assassination?

For that matter, given that these ministers believe in the power of prayer, might they not be committing treason in the good ol’ fashioned secular sense? Just wondering.

And if, God forbid (a little counter-imprecatory prayer for ya), some wingnut took a potshot at the president and was doing it to help fulfill what he/she saw as God’s will, would these theological hooligans be held accountable for publically asking God to kill Obama?

Interesting questions all, none of which I have the answer to. Nor do I have an answer to the more fundamental question (at least in my mind): why one would ever pray for the death of another human being?

Think of all the things one *could* pray for instead, no matter how virulent one’s disgust with the current president’s policy might be. You could pray for his heart to be turned and his mind changed. You could pray that the American people not be swayed by him. You could pray that Congress does not pass legislation championed by the president.

You might even simply pray that God bring about whatever is right and pleasing to Him, acknowledging that in your imperfect knowledge, you cannot know with certainty what is ultimately right or wrong. Isn’t “Thy will be done” the only truly proper intercessory prayer?

I have a sneaking suspicion that even if Christ Himself came back and announced he was for universal healthcare (and some might say he more or less did just that the first time around), there are those who are so ideologically opposed to the idea that even this wouldn’t sway them.

That’s obviously their right. But could we at least avoid invoking God as the Hitman on High to kill people with whom we have a difference of opinion on public policy? Do we want to adopt the theology of Tony Soprano?

God, I hope not.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Economic Equivalent of War

"The Moral Equivalent of War" is one of William James’s best known essays (much more so than his “A Culinary Equivalent of War,” a meditation on Mother James’s appallingly bad meatloaf that William and his brother Henry suffered through as children).

In it, James notes that war is horrific, despicable, sinful, and evil, as are most of the things it brings out of people who participate in it directly or indirectly. But it also elicits bravery, sacrifice, and a commitment to something greater than the self.

How wonderful it would be, mused James, if we could do away with militarism altogether, but find something that could elicit the selflessness and will to collective action that war did.

Even James, a psychologist of the first order, had difficulty coming up with a concrete vision of what a moral equivalent of war would be. Perhaps we’ve made some steps in that direction with the Peace Corps and Teach for America, but James’s search continues.

A more modest quest we might have more luck with is to find an economic equivalent of war.

A few weeks ago as I drove home after work, I listened to a gentleman on the radio railing against what he saw as the mistaken economics of John Maynard Keynes (and, by association, the Keynesian aspects of Obama’s economic policies).

This wasn’t Rush, Hannity, or any of those guys. Oddly enough, it seemed to be some church service. At any rate, the preacher/economic guru was talking about what a mistake it was to praise the ideas of Keynes (specifically the use of government spending to spur the economy) as what lifted the U.S. out of the Great Depression. With a great deal of self-satisfaction, he said something along the lines of, “Perhaps those who think government spending was the solution should pay more attention to their history. After all, the nation didn’t truly come out of the Depression until late 1941. This might be news to some folks, but that’s when something called the Second World War started. And the government wasn’t spending money paying government employees or creating ‘infrastructure.’ No, America was equipping G.I.s, building tanks, planes, and ships to fight fascism.”

This line drew appreciative cheers and applause from the congregation, apparently sincere.

I found it a bit hard to take this all with much seriousness. From a purely economic perspective, what, I wondered, were G.I.s, but government employees? What would you call tanks, planes, and ships if not infrastructure? Heck, the Manhattan Project was the biggest “make work” government investment in history.

Among those who like denigrating FDR’s fiscal policies during the Great Depression, it’s taken as an article of faith that it was WWII that actually brought the economy back. What these people seem not to realize is that to the extent this might be true, it’s true because it radically expanded and accelerated government spending beyond FDR’s wildest dreams.

There is nothing magical about spending money to kill human beings that makes it more economically stimulating than spending money to heal, educate, house, or feed them. To the contrary, war is inherently (and obviously) destructive. You’re building stuff that won’t be used for anything other than to obliterate things and people.

Take a moment to imagine what the world might be like if the United States (and everyone else involved in WWII for that matter) had been in a position to spend all the money that was spent on bombs, bullets, and planes on things like houses, trains, roads, power plants, medical research, etc. What if we’d managed to take the Great Depression as seriously as a threat to the national welfare as we did Pearl Harbor?

We’d have had the post-war “boom” without the war, without the destroyed cities, without so much brainpower spent on ways to kill rather than heal, without the tens of millions of human beings killed. Talk about a peace dividend.

I’m no economist myself, but it seems a difficult argument to make that government spending is a boondoggle, and use as proof of this is the fact that massive government spending in the fighting of WWII was what “really” got us out of the Great Depression.

Unfortunately, just as it’s difficult to evoke the degree of bravery and self-sacrifice from an individual as one finds in war, it’s also difficult to evoke the commitment to collective investment in our national well-being as one finds in war.

More’s the pity.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Class Covenant

I thought this might be a good venue to share something I've done with one of my freshman composition courses.  I've said I wanted to do some political commenting on this blog, but have it be a bit more holistic in terms of various things that happen to be going on in my world, so here I go.

I've been trying to make my courses more collaborative, with students having more input as far as what we spend time learning and doing in class, as long as the overall goals of the course are getting met.

One book that was a source of this desire is Life Enriching Education by Marshall Rosenberg who suggests that pedagogy in line with a peaceful world is one that focuses on shared goals rather than unilateral instruction. 

I'm still working on this, but one way I thought I'd make a step in that direction is to have a "class covenant" where I asked students to brainstorm qualities they feel are present in successful, fun, good classes, then come up with a plan for how to make our own class meet these criteria.

So, I we came up with a lengthy list of what a good class was and wasn't.  We then winnowed this list down to five terms we could all agree on.  After that, I had them come up with ideas for how each of them as individuals, I as the instructor, and us as a collective group could make the class live up to these terms.  The question I asked is, "How will we know that our class is . . . .?"  The idea was to not just say what we *hoped* the class would be, but to articulate *how* we'd get there.

I've given the results of our efforts below.  Almost all the language and suggestions come from the students themselves.  I only provided the framework and a handful of ideas.  How well this works has yet to be seen.  I'm hopeful.  On the other hand, although the students themselves identified that they needed to not be talking while something is going on in class, I've already had to get people to quiet down when I've been fielding a question from a student sitting four feet away and I couldn't hear her! 

I'll keep you posted on how this little experiement goes.


Class Covenant for ENGL 103-01, Fall Semester, 2009-10

We, the members of ENGL 103-01 (both students and instructor) want this class to be excellent. We have identified the following traits as the most important qualities of a great class: it is interesting, everyone in it shows mutual respect, everyone feels motivated, the class is interactive, and everyone communicates clearly and effectively with one another.

We commit ourselves to doing our best to make these qualities part of this class. To do this, we’ve identified things each member of the class can do to help us achieve our goal. We have also identified ways we’ll know if we are meeting this goal.

To make sure the class is interesting, we believe that individual students should try to find something about each assignment that interests them, even if the assignment as a whole doesn’t. We believe the instructor should include hands-on activities and games as much as possible. Bringing snacks wouldn’t be a bad idea either. We believe the class as a whole should volunteer ideas for games and experiential learning whenever possible.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because everyone in the class will be happy and will want to come to class. People won’t skip or be late.

To make sure the class shows mutual respect, we believe that individual students should not talk to neighbors when other people are talking, even if that means not sitting by a close friend to avoid the temptation to talk. We believe the instructor should listen to students, give them a say in assignments, and keep Brittany from having too many Cokes. We believe the class as a whole should pay attention, not get off topic, and not wear their hearts on their sleeve, especially when getting feedback from others during workshopping.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because we’ll all get along, we won’t have to remind each other to be quiet, there won’t be any interruptions, and feedback will be given and received freely.

To make sure the class is motivating, we believe that individual students should be ready for class, have assignments done, look for what’s useful or interesting in each assignment or reading, and keep in mind that you need to pass this class to graduate. We believe the instructor should offer kind guidance and positive reinforcement, respect various learning styles in the class, and give honest and direct feedback. We believe the class as a whole should offer each other kind guidance and encourage one another to do their best.

If we succeed in this, we will be able to tell because we will all know one another and feel comfortable interacting, we will get assignments done for class, everyone will participate, we will feel like we are working together rather than competing, and we will feel like a cohesive group.

To make sure the class is interactive, we believe that individual students should always come to class with something to say or ask. We believe the instructor should come up with creative activities and put students outside their comfort zone. We believe the class as a whole should be active in class discussions.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because everyone in the class will feel out of their comfort zone (in a good way), students will enjoy the class and volunteer easily, and there won’t be “ping pong” questions between the instructor and the students.

To make sure the class shows good communication, we believe that individual students should not be afraid to ask questions and listen to each other and the instructor. We believe the instructor should put stuff on Blackboard and give clear directions on assignments. We believe the class as a whole should check email regularly, be active in class, feel free to come to office hours outside of class, and talk as loud as Brittany whenever possible.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because students will set up conferences outside of class, students won’t be afraid to make comments, and Brittany will feel okay about belching freely after drinking a 20 oz. bottle of Coke.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize/Goad

I just heard about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

My first thought was, “Wow! Cool!”

My second thought is, “I hope he earns it.”

In the five minutes it’s been since first hearing the news, the few comments I’ve heard, both in pro and anti Obama camps, is puzzlement about why the president would receive this award after being in office only a few months.

I’ll throw out one possible answer, one that I think makes some sense.

I suspect the award is meant more as a goad than as a reward. Obama’s vision for the world and America’s place in bodes well for a move toward a more peaceful planet where even the most entrenched enmities might be transcended. At the very least, we can hope that we try for such transcendence before relying on the half-measure of compromise or the utter failure of war. Peace is no longer a dirty word, as it often has been in this country of late.

Having said that, Obama is considering ramping up troop levels in Afghanistan. The occupation of Iraq continues. Abolishing nuclear weapons is something that’s talked about, but hasn’t been done.

A few months into office, Obama is now having to make the actual decisions that will determine whether the reality of his presidency lives up to the rhetoric. I think the Nobel Prize committee knows this. By giving him the award, the committee also has placed a heavy burden on Obama’s shoulders: to live up to the epithet “Nobel Peace Prize Winner.”

While not impossible, it will be harder for “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Barack Obama to send more combat troops to continue an occupation of a foreign country than it would for merely “President Obama.” It will be harder for “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Barack Obama to cave in to pressure to deploy expensive and pointless weapons systems around the world than it would for “President Obama.” It will be harder for “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Barack Obama to turn a blind eye to extraordinary rendition and torture than it would for “President Obama.”

To those who think that this prize is givens way too early, I agree insofar as the prize is meant to reward past actions. But if we see this action for what (in my opinion) it is, a persuasive act aimed moving Obama to fulfill the promise of peace he’s spoken about, I think the award, coming at just the time when the rhetorical rubber is hitting the road of reality, potentially does more to foster peace than it would if given for actions done five, ten, or twenty years ago.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Violence and Sports Part Deux

We seem to have had a spate of violent sporting folks recently.  Given my previous post, I thought I might share this post I made on Salon in response to an article suggesting that Serena Williams was getting treated more harshly than John McEnroe and other des enfants terrible of the tennis world after her meltdown at the U.S. Open.  The video above accompanied the original article and is relevant.

I never had any sympathy for McEnroe or any of the other players who berated officials and whined. More penalties more quickly dished out for childish behavior would have been (and would be now)a good thing for the game.

Having said that, in none of the clips included in the article featuring McEnroe did he physically threaten anyone. He was petulant and disgraceful, but never overtly violent.

Yes, race and gender might play into it, but I think the more obvious distinction between Williams's outburst and the others mentioned is that she verbally threatened the lineswoman (whether it be saying she was going to "kill" her, or merely shove a ball down her throat).

Physical intimidation of officials is, in any sport, several orders of magnitude above simply complaining about them. Playing down this aspect of Williams tirade and pretending like it was of a piece with McEnroe talking about the chalk flying up is to misprepresent what happened and to tacitly diminish the significance of threatening someone with physical violence.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Tears for Blount

So, I consider myself at least a moderate sports fan, but I was probably the last person on the planet to see the video of the punch thrown by LaGerrette Blount that decked Bryon Hout in the aftermath of the Boise State/Oregon game a week ago.

I had heard a lot about it—descriptions of various sorts. But I hadn’t seen the footage until after I heard an interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” with Dave Zinn, a sports writer for The Nation magazine. Zinn’s take on the incident bothered me, and I decided to seek out the video to see what happened for myself.

In case you, like me, missed it, basically what happened is that Hout runs up to Blount after the game, slaps his shoulder pads, and says something (apparently unflattering) to Blount. The backstory is that Blount had been talking a lot of smack about how bad Oregon was going to whup up on Boise State. Not only did that not happen, but Blount had a horrible game personally. After Hout ran by and taunted Blount, Blount sucker punched Hout, who fell to the ground (but was not seriously injured). Blount was suspended for the rest of this, his senior season with Oregon.

Now, Zinn’s take: He claims the punishment was vastly disproportionate to the crime. While he repeatedly says he’s not excusing Blount’s actions, Zinn insists that Blount doesn’t deserve to be suspended for the entire season.

His reasons? First, he claims that there were “mitigating” circumstances, including the initial taunt itself, the replaying of the punch on the JumboTron at the stadium, and lastly the boorish behavior of some Boise State fans who threatened Player 1 after this repeated replaying of the incident on the JumboTron.

The latter two issues are easy to dispense with. They aren’t mitigating circumstances, by definition, since they happened as results of the punch after the fact. A mitigating circumstance is something that happens *in the commission of an act* that lessens the offender’s culpability. What happened after the fact, no matter how ugly, doesn’t lessen the severity of the act.

Now, as to the taunt, here’s where the video comes in. From the description, I had imagined Hout actively getting in the face of Blount, invading his personal space, and repeatedly taunting him. But that’s not what happened. As the video shows, Hout runs past Blount, slaps him on the shoulder pads, and shouts something, and then continues on. Nothing that could conceivably be considered threatening or as an attempt to goad Blount into violence.

Without a doubt, Hout is an incredible tool and shouldn’t have done it. But words are one thing, physical violence is another. The notion that Zinn floats that one shouldn’t be surprised that Blount reacted the way he did after being taunted in an atmosphere with “this kind of level of adrenaline and testosterone” is utter crap.

Look, people have gone to the electric chair for spontaneous outbursts of violence committed in stressful situations. Had Blount done the very same thing in a college-town bar (another location that often features a surfeit of testosterone), he’d be looking at jail time, not simply not getting to play a game. Heck, he didn’t even have his scholarship revoked.

But the centerpiece of Zinn’s argument about the punishment is not so much the “mitigating” circumstances, but the fact that :

“LaGarrette Blount has gone from being somebody who will most like - would have been most likely a second-round NFL draft pick with a contract of one or $2 million guaranteed, to being somebody who, according to ESPN draft expert Todd McShay - and people I've talked to as well, for that matter - is not going to be drafted, just for that one moment, that one punch.”
 He later says,

“I guess what I'm saying is not only that we have to look at the whole context of it, we also have to look at the extent to which this particular suspension is going to damage Blount's chances to make any kind of living from football.”

And that’s what’s most galling to me. Throughout the interview, Zinn suggests that it’s incredibly unfortunate that this punishment will damage Blount’s chances of becoming a multimillionaire in the NFL. As if he has a right to make such a living. As if the punishment would *not* have been over the top in Zinn’s mind if Blount had been a Division III player with no hope of earning millions after his senior season.

Despite his repeated attempts to assure us that he is “in no way excusing” Blount’s behavior, Zinn is doing exactly that, saying that it’s hypocritical for sports fans to expect players to play a game full on and then not commit assault and battery afterward.

Nonsense. If you are such a Neanderthal that you can’t play a competitive sport full out (yes, even a sport as inherently violent as football) and still act within the most basic bounds of social decency once the final whistle blows, you don’t belong in sports to begin with. Yes, Hout was a dick. Yes, the idiotic fans should be disciplined if they actually attempted to assault Blount afterward. Yes, the JumboTron dude should be given the boot.

But please, let’s get over excusing violence because of “testosterone” or the “adrenaline” of a contact sport. And let’s not cry over the justified punishment of a guy who, had he done what he did anywhere else, would find himself in the clink, not when he still has his scholarship, can practice with his team, and will likely have plenty of opportunities to be drafted and/or signed by the NFL next year anyway.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Angels and Big Boys

Before you read any further, you owe it to yourself to take a look at this:

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. I know, for I thought it, too . . . once.

You’re thinking that Glenn Beck is batsh*t crazy.

Sure, at first blush it looks bad. The Beckster seems to fancy himself some sort of Robert Langdon a la The DaVinci Code, finding the oh-so-subtle-yet-indubitable symbols of communism in front of our eyes, going on a bizarre rant about hammer and sickles and workers and Rockefeller, all without making a single coherent point.

Yes, one might think that Beck is not only embarrassing himself, but his network, conservatives, and perhaps all of humanity with his inane prattle.

You might think that the only possible explanation for this tour-de-force of stupidity is that Beck, a confessed alcoholic, is back on the juice.

Oh, but you’d be wrong.

For, now that my eyes have been opened by Beck, I too see the connections. Glen has played Morphus to my na├»ve Neo, and I’ve swallowed the red pill. In more ways than one.

I give you a fabled piece of what I once, in my innocence, would have called “American” sculpture: Big Boy.

 Innocent? Whimsical? Cute?

Oh, you poor, ignorant bastard.

Thanks to Beck, I now see Bob’s Big Boy for what it is: communist propaganda.

You doubt me? I give you Big Boy’s ideological daddy--Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Ah, I can here you even now. Mere happenstance you say. A quirk of sculptural synchronicity. I wish . . .

Take a look. See the pattern. Statue after statue. Lenin after Lenin. From Moscow to Budapest, Lenin’s pose is the same. The left hand clenched and cocked, as if to strike against an evil capitalist. The right hand raised in triumph.

What could be more clear?

A Big Boy burger? I’ll just say nyet, comrade!

Do you need more? You’ve got it.

Take a look at BB’s wardrobe--the checkerboard overalls.

Sure, one could note the color: red. Or the fact that overalls bespeak the proletariat, rising up in righteous revolution against their oppressors.

But a trained monkey could note those obvious connections between BB and nefarious political ideologies. Inspired by Beck, I have dug deeper, and I have looked into the abyss.

Do you know who else, Besides Mark’s Big Boy, uses the red checkerboard as a symbol?


Hmmmmmm…..what to make of this? Gosh, I wonder. What country was Croatia once a part of? Oh, oh yeah: Yugoslavia! And what was the form of government did Yugoslavia have?


But that’s not even the end of it. Where else do we find that “innocent” red checkerboard?

Ralston Purina.

William Danforth, the founder of Purina, chose the red checkerboard as his company’s logo, but that’s not all. He also developed it into a symbol of a whole new-agey world view, representing the balance among the mental, physical, social, and religious. I know this because it’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true. Look it up yourself!

So the red checkerboard represents a pagan worldview—an unholy, un-Christian spiritual view linked via numerology to the number four—four winds, four humors, four elements, four corners of the world. The bastards! They made it so obvious we didn’t even notice it!

And now Ralston Purina is owned by a Swiss company. Gee, what do we know about the Swiss? Snazzy pocket knives. Sure. Yodeling. Check. But think . . . think, dammit!

Yes, now you have it: neutrality! Even in World War II! The Swiss wouldn’t even take a stand against Adolf Hitler, and now they own a company that is both leading our youth into the cold embrace of communism, but owns a huge percentage of the pet food market.

Oh God . . . . oh my sweet Lord . . . .the last piece has fallen in place.

Alpo . . . Kit-n-Kiboodle . . . Big Boy Burgers . . . .



Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Peaceful Evolution of Ted Kennedy

I truly admire people who are nimble enough of mind to allow their opinions to grow and change based on new evidence, insight, and sensitivity. I’m embarrassed to say that I had not been aware of the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s gift in this area when it came to the issue of Northern Ireland.

Only in the wake of his death and the coverage of his career did I learn of the degree to which his views on this issue changed, from one of a die-hard Republican (i.e., anti-Unionist) to someone who played a key role in paving the way for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. And he did this despite the fact that by evolving in this way, he would be upsetting any number of supporters, perhaps even seen as a traitor to a cause.

But in fact Kennedy found a much more elevated and worthy cause for which to fight: peace. He transcended his previous position, locked in an “us vs. them” or “either/or” mentality, to achieve a “both/and” of peace and exclusiveness.

For this, he received criticism, first for those who thought he was turning his back on Irish nationalism, then by conservatives in the U.K. when he received a knighthood. They attacked him precisely because he once held the beliefs he had left behind.

Both groups failed to recognize and credit the growth of Kennedy’s views, views that did not represent a compromise between two sides, but a transcending of conflict to a position that held out promise for all involved.

If you would like to read a brief overview of Kennedy’s involvement in Irish politics and the peace process, see this article at


Saturday, August 22, 2009

R.I.P. "Prince of Darkness" (Well . .. Sort Of)

Robert Novak (a.k.a. "The Prince of Darkness") died this week. He’s best known as one of a cadre of conservative talking heads, but he was a talking head before it was cool to be a talking head (with the exception of David Byrne). Before opinionated punditry ruled the airwaves and cable channels, there were only a few outlets where you saw this sort of ideological bloodsport in its raw form. CNN’s Crossfire was one such place, and Novak was a longtime participant, often facing off against Michael Kinsley.

When I first started to become truly engaged in politics, such shows were a major turn on. People yelling at each other! What could be cooler or more fun?

While I agreed with Novak on almost nothing, I always at least though of him as intellectually honest. He actually believed what he said and didn’t lie about his reasons for believing it. For that, at least, I found him so much better than, say, the likes of Ann Coulter, who I often think of as little more than a pigeon in a Skinner Box. As the bird could be trained to peck at a lever to get a reward of a pellet of food, I think folks like Coulter have found an audience for their brand of vitriol and reap the rewards from it, but don’t actually believe what they say in any deep sense. They certainly don’t think through it in any depth. I can’t stand Coulter not so much because I disagree with most of the political positions to which she pays lip service, but because I think she is an utter and complete cynic who doesn’t truly care much about political issues, but is more than willing to churn out bombastic nonsense and sell it to people as actual cogent thought. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Novak, however, was a true believer, and for that, I could respect him even if I disagreed with him. Or at least I could for a while.

Then 2000 happened.

When I heard Novak died, the first thought that came to mind was not his assist on outing a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, the incident he was most known for in recent years, but something he said on one of those talking head shows he helped pioneer.

During the recount of 2000, I was watching one of those Capital Gang/Crossfire/McLaughlin Group shows. They were doing a story on the “Brooks Brothers Revolt,” the allegedly spontaneous outpouring of outrage by conservatives at how the recount was being handled.

Of course, it turned out that most of the protestors yelling and screaming outside courthouse offices were paid Republican operatives, many of whom found jobs in the Bush administration and/or conservative think tanks and lobbying groups.

Anyway, one of the panelists was bemoaning the fact that these demonstrations had, at least in one case, devolved into violence. A hapless county official who was taking a sample ballot to members of the media to use as a visual aid in reporting the story was set upon by a mob of pro-Bush supporters who accused him of trying to smuggle ballots out of the office where the recount was happening. They roughed him up pretty well.

So, one commentator on the show (I think Mark Shields or Al Hunt) was saying how appalling it was that in the United States of America, you’d see violent mobs attacking election officials who were just doing their job.

You’d think that this would be a statement that anyone could get behind. And almost anyone could, except Bob Novak.


The implication was that, regardless of his innocence of any wrongdoing, this guy deserved a beatdown simply by virtue of being a public employee.

That was the moment Novak went from being someone I respected despite disagreeing with to being someone I found loathsome.

Now, I don’t know if Novak truly thought that a government employee, simply by virtue of his job, deserved to be set upon by thugs, or if that was just rhetorical red meat he was throwing to far-right conservatives who relish seeing government as the enemy, and he got carried away.

Either way, it was despicable.

I often had the fantasy of being on that panel when Novak said that and responding, “So, you think government’s a bad thing so anyone who’s a part of it deserves to get beat up? Fine, I think radical conservatism is causing incredible damage to our country. It’s a bad thing. You’re part of it. So, how about I beat you to a bloody pulp right hear and now? That okay by you?”

Of course, I wouldn’t have actually said that, even if for some reason they had decided to invite some anonymous editor of educational materials from Iowa City to weigh in on the 2000 election on national television. First, I’m not that quick with a quip. Second, joking about physically harming someone because you disagree with them on politics, even in jest and even to make a point about how disgusting it is to do so, is simply wrong.

But that’s okay, since Novak himself destroyed his own ethos with that comment. He revealed himself not as a political thinker and commentator, but as a bully, someone happy to use his position to put people in danger to score cheap rhetorical points. His involvement in the Plame affair was therefore hardly shocking.

Having lost both parents to cancer, I don’t wish that dread disease on anyone, and I would rather he hadn’t died. And I would still put Novak a notch or two above empty-headed poseurs like Coulter who play-act at punditry.

But I’d be lying if I said I thought the public sphere was rhetorically impoverished by Novak’s passing.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Of Whale Watching and Navel Gazing

So I did it. I watched an episode of “Whale Wars” on the Discovery Channel.

I tried not to. I avoided it for almost a year. But on Saturday, I got sucked in.

You might ask, “Who cares, and what does this have to do with rhetoric or peace or anything like that?”

Well, for starters, I promised myself that I’d make an effort not to have this newest blog not just be pseudo-academic or faux-pundit stuff, but actually require some self-reflection on my part, and an attempt to integrate abstract stuff with personal observations.

Plus, my favorite academic-y blogs are ones that blend the academic and the personal. Ideally, these shouldn’t be two different worlds. If you want a sample, one I like a lot is “Bitch Ph.D.,” which is worth a click just for the photo in the banner.

When I was a tyke, one of the books my dad would read to me at bedtime was one called “All About Whales” by R. C. Andrews, the guy who supposedly was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.

From at least that time on, I’ve been fascinated by whales and repulsed by the notion of whaling. When I read Moby Dick, I was rooting for the whale.

So I knew if I watched “Whale Wars” (about a group that harasses Japanese whaling ships in an attempt to save whales) I knew I’d get worked up.

As the episode unfolded and I saw a grenade-tipped harpoon fired by a gun into a whale, obliterating its internal organs, but not killing it outright. For more than 20 minutes (thankfully shortened by editing to just a couple of minutes of screen time), the doomed whale thrashed and struggled, suffocating on its own blood, as whalers repeatedly shot it with a rifle.

And sure enough, I found my heart pounding.

I remembered the daydreams I had as a child. They went something along these lines: some eccentric billionaire environmentalist would purchase a WWII-era surplus submarine and scour the earth for a crew of kids who had just the right combination of passion, smarts, and moxie to crew this sub on its mission of disrupting illegal whaling across the seven seas. This rag-tag bunch of scrappy do-gooders would force whalers to strike their colors and abandon ship, allowing them just enough time to board life boats and radio for rescue before sending the blood-soaked kill ship to the bottom.

And since this was my daydream, after all, you can guess who was the kid looking through the periscope calling the order to fire a salvo of Mark IV fish into the side of the whaler.

I’ve sometimes thought of turning these childhood fantasies into a young-adult novel. And since I know there are writers among you, let me simply say it’s MY idea!. All rights reserved. Patent Pending. Copyright 2009, Remingtomes Books. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

But watching the show and doing a sort of self-inventory of the feelings it brought up reminded me of the tension between self-righteous anger and the desire to get along. Neither of these drives, in my mind, is good or bad. There are situations when almost the only rational response *is* anger—or at least the drive to take action to remedy the situation. And when being peaceful becomes nothing more than passivity, it ceases to be a virtue.

The trick is knowing where this line is. If one grants that whaling is a gruesome, immoral act, to what lengths should one go to end it? Taking violence against human beings off the table as self-evidently and categorically wrong, what about violence against property? What about causing fear?

I don’t know.

Obviously the issue of whaling is a metaphor. The larger issue is one that we each encounter on a nearly daily basis. Or at least I do.

The situations aren’t anywhere near as dramatic, but let me give you an example of what I mean. I believe passionately that in a country as wealthy as ours, it is morally inexcusable to not have guaranteed, affordable healthcare for every citizen. I’m not alone in this. As a matter of principle, polls consistently show that the majority of Americans want universal healthcare and would even be willing to personally pay more taxes if that were necessary to make it happen.

But of course not everyone agrees, and even those who agree in principle often balk when a specific plan is proposed. The minority who opposes it on ideological grounds will seize on specifics (real or imagined) that they feel will persuade those who *do* favor universal coverage to not support the given plan.

That’s why you don’t hear many against healthcare reform arguing that universal healthcare isn’t a worthy goal, or even arguing that the government shouldn’t be involved in providing healthcare. Instead, you get silliness like “death panels” and suggestions that instead of your doctor making healthcare decisions with you, some faceless “government bureaucrat” will call the shots (as if we weren’t ass-deep in bureaucrats making healthcare decisions for us; I don’t know about you, but I have pretty good insurance and I still get told what doctors I’m allowed to go to and what procedures I can have done).

So, I believe strongly in this issue—it’s one that directly affects the well-being of me and my fellow citizens. The case seems so self-evident to me as to almost need no defense—every moral and spiritual code I can think of is on the side of caring for those who are sick.

Yet I’m keenly aware that many people—including people whose intellect and morality I respect, people who are devoted followers of one or more of the moral codes that seem so self evidently on my side—aren’t in agreement with me.

Part of me thinks, “Well, not a one of us has access to objective Truth in its totality. I have my point of view; others have theirs. Can’t we all just get along?”

But another part of me, the part that is still that little kid who dreamt of confronting merchants of death on the high seas in the name of a transcendent good, feels compelled to challenge, critique, and attack what I perceive as ignorance, moral blind spots, narrow-mindedness, etc.

When it comes to public officials, there’s obviously no conflict—expressing oneself is fine and dandy, as long as one isn’t impinging on the rights of others.

But what about when you’re dealing with friends, family, colleagues? Is the drive to engage in debate—even friendly debate—with such people a good thing or a bad thing? A sign of sincere desire to search for the truth, or just a pathetic need to engage in rhetorical one-upsmanship? If I see an someone on Facebook approvingly post a screed by Ann Coulter or make a factually inaccurate argument about Obama’s “socialism,” is my nearly-reflexive desire to provide the other side, to “correct” them, to explain why their point of view is so disturbing and (to my mind) damaging to our collective world . . . is that desire coming from a good place or a bad place?

Again, I dunno.

One of the things I’m hoping to work toward in my own mind is a concept of rhetorical engagement which transcends the idea of “argument” in the narrow sense of being pro/con. There’s already been some work on that done (e.g. “Rogerian” argument), but it still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll keep dealing with my conflicting desires—the one to jump aboard my discursive Zodiac boat and aggressively harass those who would seek to harpoon the Truth as I grasp it (in my admittedly limited way), and the part of me that thinks it would be more congenial and decorous to simply lie on the beach and have another Mai Tai.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Of Black Helicopters and Grandmas

The current rhetoric about “death panels” that’s coming from not only loudmouths at town halls but from talking heads on television and established political figures reminds me a lot of the sort of “black helicopter” paranoia that is the stuff of conspiracy theories.

I did my doctoral research on conspiracy theories. Oddly enough, it was that experience that began my interest in looking at the rhetoric of conflict resolution and peace. Why? Because I learned that the usual way of looking at conspiracy theories, being for ‘em or again ‘em, wasn’t terribly useful. I came to the conclusion that a more nuanced view that looked at *why* they gained popularity in certain circles, what rhetorical purpose they served, and what light this shed on the democratic process.

The upshot was my view that conspiracy theories are often a vehicle through which subtle and complex grievances and anxieties are expressed, often by groups that perceive themselves to not have a voice in the public sphere. Stories of conspiracy simplified the issue, making it easier to communicate as well as more dramatic (hence, garnering more attention).

So, for example, I found it unhelpful to get into a debate about whether or not the CIA actually introduced crack cocaine into inner cities as a way of killing off African Americans, and more helpful to look at how and why this story developed. No, I don’t believe that government operatives parachuted into South Central L.A. with crack pipes and rocks of cocaine.

But what emerged was that there *were* real and valid concerns about the government and media’s neglect of the issue of drugs in the inner city and the way the justice system was perverted (through sentencing laws that made selling crack a far more serious crime than selling powder cocaine) to effectively inter black men in prison.

Was this an evil conspiracy hatched up in some secret room in the White House? No. But there was a reality to the grievances about the way the government was treating the issue. The result was a more dramatic narrative that reduced these often subtle and varied points through the crucible of narrative into a much more sensationalist and dramatic conspiracy theory (that did, in fact, force these concerns onto the national stage, if only briefly). Better to understand this than to simply write it all off as nonsense.

What I see going on today with the “Town Hells” going on around the country where people are shouting about “death camps” and “pulling the plug on grandma.”

Are these charges true? Of course not. Not even the most anti-Obama pundit, if she or he knows the proposed legislation at all, believes it. It’s paranoid and delusional and sensationalistic.

But does that make it all bad?

As I say above, these sorts of conspiracy theories often serve as vehicles for legitimate concern. Any major change in public policy—particularly when it involves something as intimate and visceral as one’s health—is going to be a cause of anxiety. There are reasonable concerns about how any change might affect our collective and individual well-being.

Now, putting my cards on the table, I think it’s fairly obvious that any variation of the plans now being considered would dramatically increase access to quality healthcare for just about everyone by expanding coverage and reducing costs. But one can believe that wholeheartedly and still acknowledge reasons for skepticism and even fear on the part of some who don’t see this. (For now, I’m tabling the issue of those who cynically oppose this legislation base on sheer economic self-interest and not out of sincere concern about personal health).

So, are these “Town Hells” activists who claim Obama is going to institute “Carousel” (a little Logan’s Run reference, for you sci fi fans) actually a legitimate way of giving public voice to rational-but-difficult-to-articulate concerns?

To answer that question, I return to what I found in my dissertation studies. Not all conspiracy theories are equal. Context counts. For example, the anti-government conspiracy theories of the militia movement (most infamously articulated in the racist, anti-semitic novel The Turner Diaries and acted upon by Timothy McVeigh) don’t fall into the same category as the stories about the CIA and crack cocaine.

Why not? Because these particular conspiracy narratives aimed at silencing others rather than simply voicing “outsider” points of view. They discouraged discussion because they not only made claims that marginal political beliefs should be heard, but said that other beliefs (in fact *all* other beliefs) were invalid and should be silenced (often through physical violence).

And that’s what I see increasingly in these town hall meetings. Even if we ignore the ample evidence that these protests are fomented by groups with financial, political, and ideological skin in the game who want to derail healthcare reform for reasons that have nothing to do with sincere concern about its affects on the average American, the actions and words of those at these town halls are disturbingly like the militia movement conspiracy narratives of the 1980s and 90s.

Shouting down people, hanging them in effigy, making comparisons to Nazis and Hitler—these have the effect of chilling debate. They don’t seek to simply articulate a point of view—they seek to silence others.

And let’s acknowledge that the point of view being articulated is hardly an “outsider” point of view. In fact, it’s a point of view well-established in the halls of power of political and corporate America masquerading as a grassroots uprising against the “establishment.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t have some sympathy for those who’ve been led to believe that they (or their grandma’s) health is going to be determined by a government panel. If I believed that, I would be shouting about it too. And I can get pissed off about how these folks are allowing themselves to be duped and are too lazy or ignorant to actually look at the facts, but simply writing these folks off as stupid people believing crazy shit doesn’t do much good.

But neither can I champion what’s going on with these conspiracy theories about death panels as some sort of creative way of broadening the public debate and giving voice to the disenfranchised. The “deathers” movement is far too close to the militia movement in its intolerance for other points of view, willingness to trade in fantasies of violence and murder, and barely-concealed racism to be an example of the ways conspiracy theories can productively undermine hegemonic narratives of power, even when they may be based on factually dubious claims.

On the contrary, it’s an example of how forces with power use fear to pit some people who feel marginalized and powerless (as I’m sure many “town hell-ers” feel) against other people who feel marginalized and powerless (those who are financially and physically vulnerable because of their lack of comprehensive healthcare).

My hope is that this paranoia will be revealed for what it is before we have a second coming of Timothy McVeigh who takes these fantasies of government conspiracy literally and acts on them.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Blending with Boehner's Visual Rhetoric

Perhaps you've seen this bit of visual rhetoric courtesy of Rep. John Boehner. It's his attempt to portray a government option in healthcare as some sort of Rube Goldberg-ian nightmare.

The point is obvious enough: by manufacturing a visual image that looks like the wiring schematic for a Boeing 777, Boehner hopes to scare people into opposing healthcare reform. The dread spectre of "BUREAUCRACY" is supposed to frighten the bejesus out of Americans. (Of course, Americans won't have to choose the government plan, but I digress.)

One way of countering this might be to criticize the visual image as inaccurate by pointing out its exaggerations. Another might be to create a similar diagram that would visualize the corporate bureaucracy involved in for-profit healthcare (which would likely be no less complicated and would include a bright green rectangle labeled "People Who Decide if You Are Worth More Dead than Alive").

Both approaches are a tad pugnacious. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, but what if we tried to come up with a way of countering this bit of visual rhetoric in a way that redirects the attack rather than directly opposing it?

I suggest one way of doing this is might be to offer the following visual:

It's simply a blank white space. What is it?
It's the healthcare plan that 47 million Americans currently have.
It's the healthcare plan millions more Americans would have if they left their current job in order to go back to school, start their own business, or care for an ill family member.
It's the healthcare plan many Americans with preexisting conditions would be invited to choose if they applied for coverage with one of the profit-driven corporations.
It's the healthcare plan many are left with once the company that had insured them decides they are no longer worth the cost of keeping alive.
By comparison, even Boehner's comical Rube Goldberg exaggeration looks pretty good, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let the Healing Begin

So, it's been a while since I've done any serious blogging. I've had a few false starts after a long run on The Counterpoint, but the lack of any single controlling theme, as well as having a growing number of academic and other duties, including writing of various sorts, kept me from getting into any sort of groove.

That's changed at least a bit. An general issue that's becoming increasingly important in my intellectual and spiritual life is peace/nonviolence studies.

Hence, this current blog. It will be political, but rather than simply being an exercise in debunking highly bunkable arguments by various public figures, I will be making an attempt to use this space as a place to think through some ways in which the issues of rhetoric and nonviolence intersect. (There is, believe it or not, a surprisingly small amount of work being done on that topic.)

It might seem contradictory, but my plan is that this will also be a spot for me to do some personal reflecting on issues of nonviolence in a general sense, particularly how I might bring notions of conflict resolution (or, better yet, avoidance) in the classroom.

So while this blog has a fairly specific raison d'etre, my plan is for the subjects to vary more broadly than previous efforts, ranging from rather abstract philosophizing to a reflection on what went on in my class that day.

More than anything, this is a place for personal experimentation with thoughts and words. I welcome any thoughts or insights you can share.

Oh, and as my first move in my attempt to explore the intersection of politics, rhetoric, and my own life, I'm going to "friend" Mark Hyman on Facebook.

Yes, that Mark Hyman--the subject of The Counterpoint, and the guy who called me an example of "failures in higher education" (before being forced to retract his statements a few days later).

This might seem like a longshot, but I was encouraged to do so by my sister, who happens to be a nun. So, to quote the Blues Brothers, I'm on a mission from God.

I won't guess what Hyman's response will be, but I think the gesture will be worth it in any case, and I'll certainly keep you posted!



PS. If you want a rundown of my previous experiences with Mark Hyman, you can get it in
my "manifesto" that was published in Kairos a while back.