Friday, January 28, 2011

missing the point

This week we had an illustration of missing the point, thanks to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. President Obama said in his State of the Union address that this was our Sputnik moment, a time to invest in innovation, research, and education for the future of our country. In commenting on that, however, Palin stated that it was odd (a WTF moment she said), that he was calling on Americans to celebrate that moment, saying that even though the USSR won the space race that they incurred so much debt that it led to their collapse.

There are a few things wrong with those statements. For one thing, the Soviets did not "win" the space race. that's like saying a horse in the Kentucky Derby ahead at the quarter mile mark has "won" the race (at that point there's a mile more to run). The goal of the space race was the moon, and the US won that race by landing men on the moon in 1969. Second, the Soviet Union did not fall because of space exploration costs, but because their economy went south, mainly due to excessive military spending, and the collapse happened 1991, 22 years after the US "won" the space race.

But more importantly, she missed the whole point of the remarks. he was not calling for Americans to "celebrate" Sputnik, but to remember the success we had in that response and to emulate the efforts in our current situation. Learning from history is vital, and to do that you must get your facts straight. Unfortunately many , like Ms Palin, are apparently unable (or unwilling) to do that.

Now, before you get cocky and smug thinking "I knew that", I have a couple other examples of missing the point, that may apply to all of us at times. Things where we argue over details, facts , figures, but ignore the core.

First, in response to the Tucson shootings many have debated the relationship of heated (and often violent-image) rhetoric to the actual physical violence. There have been passionate arguments on both sides. Personally I happen to agree that political rabid speech did have an influence on the shooter (since he ranted anti-government statements and then attempted a political assassination). But shouldn't harsh words and violent-image rhetoric, as well as rudeness and name-calling be seen as wrong for the sake of common decency and good manners, regardless of what they might spawn? Whatever became of treating others the way we would like to be treated (the golden rule)?

Second, in the whole global climate change debate I think we have gotten a bit lost and entangled in numbers, projections, predictions, and fears. Passion leads to defensiveness all around. But I believe we have again forgotten simple manners : as our mothers would say "pick up after yourself, take out the garbage, clean up your own room, don't trash the house". If we keep putting more and more "garbage" in the air, water, and land, it's not healthy, period. If you have ever been near a car warming up on a cold winter's day and seen or smelled the exhaust you know that it is not healthy and anything we can do to reduce that "additive" to our air would be helpful. It isn't hard to find simple things you can do to help keep our global "home" cleaner, we only have to open our eyes, hands, and hearts.

It's like an archer who aims at nothing, forgetting about the target. To shoot off a lot of arrows may look impressive but it puts everybody at risk and leaves the target untouched. It's also much more fun to aim at the target, let fly the arrow, and hear the satisfying "thunp" as the shaft hits home:)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

wise debate

Are there people who talk politics who drive you crazy? People who sound like they live in a totally different universe? These days there seem to be more and more of them and it makes political dialogue difficult. As someone once said you have the right to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. If we can't agree on some basic realities there is no communication. Like trying to discuss math with someone who insists that 2+2=5.

But if we are to have sane political debate with those of differing views, how do we proceed wisely? First, have a firm grasp on yourself- what and why you believe and that you have a right to your opinion. Second, accept that others have that same right. Third, remember that you don't know it all and you can learn from others (no god complex or bullying). Fourth, be aware that sometimes you will have to "agree to disagree" agreeably, or avoid certain topics when you come to a standstill. You can still be friends and know that you will avoid areas where you can't agree.

And, lastly, be alert for signs of a closed mind. Some are convinced that they are always right. Some don't want to take the time to think or research, they tend to think in terms of talking points. Some want power and like to make points , regardless of what is true. And some are just not thinking clearly and no amount of debate will help.

Excessive or automatic name calling is a red flag for me. Everybody at one time or another will get frustrated and call someone a jerk, moron,etc...but when it becomes a frequent part of conversation it is evidence of a dismissive attitude toward those of differing opinions and is destructive of debate. Know and recognize the difference between someone who is ignorant - does not know - and someone who is ignoring - does not want to know.

But remember that as you have learned over the years from others, and have times of changing your mind, realize that can happen for others and you could be the agent of change for them. Everybody is prone to thinking in simplistic terms sometimes, or reacting in knee-jerk fashion. But hopefully we will take a second look or be open to correction.

For example, I once had a discussion with a friend about criminal trials. He was more on the conservative side and couldn't understand why the prosecution couldn't mention a defendant's prior record in the trial. I pointed out to him that this would prejudice the jury and sway them to conviction and not judge him according to the merits of the specific case. I said that if the defendant was convicted in this trial then in the sentencing phase the prosecution was free to bring up the prior record to effect the sentencing, but not before the verdict was delivered. He listened and said it made sense "I hadn't thought of that before" he said. I was glad.

There are those out there who don't listen, won't listen, and you waste your breath trying to talk to. You even waste your energy reacting to them even if they aren't near (TV, radio, online). There is a time to react, speak out, when to keep silent would be to seem to give assent to their views. But there is also a time to employ what I call the "Valley Girl response " ...to say "whatever" to their comments, dismiss them as the irrational comments of those who do not want to discus or debate , just rile up and create controversy.Don't let yourself be drawn in or you will waste valuable time and energy...life is too short for that.

In the words of "The Gambler" - "you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold "em, know when to walk away, and know when to run".

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Libel

Well, seems like someone did not read my blog...Rush...calling civility the new censorship...and Pat Buchanan seeing "lynch mobs" in the criticism of uncivil discourse:(

And then there is Sarah Palin...clueless in a softball interview with Sean Hannity on Monday on Fox. She not only did not apologize or take back her comments about "blood libel", she defended them and made more mistakes. She said that the term meant a false accusation and was valid to use, even though the historical context was much greater. Two things are wrong with that: one is one of magnitude. Even if there was valid libel (which there is not) it is like calling a common handgun as a "weapon of mass destruction". Both can kill, but the capacity to do harm is vastly different...and it cheapens and waters down the term "mass destruction" to use it about a simple handgun. Likewise for her link to historical atrocities through the use of blood libel.

But beyond that she does not even seem to know the meaning of the word "libel". It is not, as she stated, merely a term for accusation. In legal terms there are three requirements to constitute and prove libel: falsehood, knowledge, and intent. First it must be a matter of fact, not opinion.To give one's opinion, however faulty it might be, is not libel. I think this is the biggest flaw in her argument. Second , even if it is facts that are gotten wrong it must be proven that the one saying (slander) or writing them (libel) knew that they were false. If you simply get a fact wrong, due to bad information that is not libel. And thirdly, there must be proven intent to defame or damage another's reputation or position in order to prove libel.

All these things are hard to prove and it is this way for the protection of free speech and for the free flow of ideas, opinions and, yes, criticisms when wrong is seen. It is more difficult to prove libel or slander when the case involves a public figure ..political or otherwise. Private individuals deserve more protection. Public figures have put their lives out there for all the world to see and so invite more criticism. The Palin's and Rush's and Hannity's of the world are such public figures and should not expect to be shielded from criticism.

And if Sarah Palin plans on running for higher office she had better not only develop a thicker skin, she must bone up on her basic vocabulary...or at least carefully read any speech she has written for her beofre she delivers it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pogrom, really?

"Blood libel" and "pogrom"...how did those words creep into our national narrative? In reaction to reactions over the Tucson shootings one was used by a political commentator (who shall not be named here) and the other was used by a newspaper (again not named, though shameless). Both were over-reactions and both are connected by a theme ....victim-hood.

Both of these terms are part of the Jewish experience of the past centuries. Blood libel deals with accusations against Jews of murdering Christian children and using their blood in rituals. It was not only grossly false, but inflammatory...fueling anti-Semitic hatred and violence. Yet this week it was used to demonize statements made questioning the use of certain imagery in political ads. Libel is inaccurate since this was not a question of facts. Adding "blood" to the charge only makes it worse, and is claiming another's pain as your own.

Then later this week the term pogrom was used to describe the same criticisms.The paper airing this view said that criticisms of political speech by one side was part of an ongoing "pogrom" against the other side. Specifically that liberals were organizing a pogrom against conservatives. And this by the very folks who say that their speech had nothing to do with an act of violence against a political figure. A persecution complex is not valid political debate material.

Pogroms were government- approved or -condoned campaigns of violence against ethnic minorities ,usually Jewish,that were aimed at driving out or eliminating those populations that were deemed "undesirable". Usually the term referred to actions in the Russian Empire (where the term originated), but it was not limited to there. There were other instances of it and the worst was of course the Holocaust. Some times it was through incited riots, sometimes through prejudicial propaganda, and sometimes through direct government action. It is a terrible stain in world history. Many nations had anti-Semitic policies and attitudes (even the USA sadly), but the pogroms went far beyond this.To use this term about political criticism is inexcusable, in my opinion.

It also brings up the question..."was this just coincidence, poor choice of words, or a concerted effort to demonize legitimate criticism? "I don't know, but it does kind of validate some of the prior criticisms. If a person is criticized for being inflammatory and reacts by using more inflammatory words it seems to prove the point of the criticism, doesn't it? And if the words were simply chosen wrongly, innocently, doesn't it say something about the wisdom and discretion of the speaker/writer? If you don't know what a word or phrase means, please don't use it until you do some research.

And only time will reveal what the intentions of the speaker/writers are. Using this language implies the speaker/writer is feeling a victim and borrowing from others' more extreme pain. It also can be viewed as painting their critics with the colors of extremely vicious and hateful creatures of history.

This bears watching...and we would do well to watch our words....for we are all human and thus all fallible and capable of doing great harm with our words...May our words today echo the urgings of the President at the Tucson memorial, and be words of healing.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

self-restraint

When a horrific event like yesterday's shootings in Tucson happen many knee-jerk reactions occur. Accusations fly and often there are as many verbal targets as there were physical ones. Some people will angrily call for fixes, based on their particular point of view. And then people on the "other side" will respond just as angrily. This is understandable, since people are scared and hurt and helpless. No one, in their right mind, likes to see anyone senselessly hurt, and it scares us to see this happen so easily.

I personally believe there are just too many firearms in our society which raises the odds of these tragic events, just like too much brush around houses during fire season raises the odds of people losing their homes. And I think we are often desensitized to violence because of its presence in much of what we see and hear. We see it in games, stories, even cartoons, and forget that in the real world it has severe consequences.

But beyond that there is another issue. All the calls for personal responsibility, from many corners, stop short of asking us to watch our words. The usual response to calls to "ratchet it down" is...as it was yesterday..."that's censorship". One group in the area that has been notably harsh in its rhetoric during the past political campaign stated that it was not going to change the way it spoke, citing free speech rights. I am reminded of the Malcolm quote from Jurrassic Park"your scientists were so preoccupied with what they could do, that they didn't think about whether they should". Just because we can, and thanks to the internet can do it anonymously, doesn't mean we should.

We are blessed with the freedom in this country to say what we think , but with that comes the responsibility to speak wisely. The shooter wasn't some battered veteran of life's bruises and bad breaks who finally snapped and lashed out with a gun. No, he was a kid. barely out of college, not in his right mind, who had obviously been exposed to a lot of vitriolic, hateful words, by those who dump their verbal garbage online with no hint of caring what damage it might do in the wrong hands.

This is not a partisan thing. I don't really care from whence it comes. Hate and hurt know no ideology,no party, no race. And, it is as true today as when I first heard it: "Hurt people'" hurt people. It doesn't matter who "started' it, we have a responsibility to all do our part to try and end it. Think before you speak..and think of who might be listening, and how they might take your words.

This isn't just about violence. Not all wounds are visible. Words themselves can cut and kill. And just because someone doesn't have the means to lash out doesn't mean they are any less injured. Most just hide in the shadows.

As people of faith we are called to build up, to encourage, to strengthen our fellow man. But I think in our quest to be "right" we have forgotten that. We are called to be our "brother's (and sister's) keeper", to make sure our speech is "full of grace", and to "love (our) neighbor as (ourselves)". We each need to ask ourselves again " how do I use my words?" , for none can be truly taken back once they are said (or written).