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Archive for July, 2012

So it’s Come to This: a Conservative Defending Obama

ImageI’m a bit grumpy about having to do this.

I am not a fan of president Obama.  If this comes as a shock to you, welcome to my blog, first time visitor!  While I am not a constant detractor, I am a conservative, thus I find myself in opposition to the president on many issues of core ideology.  For that reason, I rather resent that I have to defend him in this instance.

Let’s get right to it: the president did not say you didn’t build your own business.  He said (albeit a bit clumsily) that you didn’t build the roads and bridges that made your business possible.

Shall we look at the quote?

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

See it?  The “you didn’t build that” bit is referring to the roads and bridges.  He didn’t mean you didn’t build your business.

I really dislike having to point this out, but come on.  Pretending to be so stupid that we can’t understand what the president was really saying won’t help us.  Even now, a week or so later, guys like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and other proponents of conservative truth are nearly apoplectic with shock (and delight?) over this quote, over the idea that president Obama has insulted the business class and handed credit for their work over to somebody else.

And why does this allegation stick so hard?  Because it is very likely that Barack Obama does, in fact, believe what he seemed to say.  The president is a collectivist.  He believes in the village, not the individual.  He promotes the government, not the private sector, as the ultimate benefactor of people.  This is not an insult, or even a surprise.  Most liberals would happily claim these as the basic tenets of their ideology.  Thus, when the president seems to say that business owners did not create their businesses, but owe their hard work to the collective at large, we are not surprised that he believes it, but only that he had the guts to admit it.

Which he didn’t.  Regardless of what most of us suspect the president truly believes, he did not say what the conservative talking heads are claiming.  They are pretending to be stupid so that they can pin an outrageous (and frankly likely) quote onto the president in an election year.

But the really annoying thing– at least to anyone who values truth above ideology– is that it isn’t necessary.  One does not need to take the president’s quote out of context for it to be outrageous.

He said that, when it comes to bridges and roads, business owners “didn’t build that”.  But, of course, they most certainly did.  Business owners, the hated capitalists that have succeeded in this country, pay far and away the majority of taxes.  The top 10% of wage earners pay over 70% of taxes, while the lower 50% paid barely 2%.  Clearly, the business owners did indeed pay for the bridges and roads that helped make their businesses function, while the lower 50% of wage earners– many of whom pumped their fists the hardest at Obama’s ding against corporate America– didn’t pitch in a cent for them.

This is where conservative talking points should be hitting.  Not the prolonged, completely unnecessary miss-quote.  I understand– and appreciate– the need to hit hard during an election year.  But if that hit isn’t based firmly in the truth, then frankly I– and any conservative thinker of conscience– don’t want any part of it.


Why “The Hunger Games” is like “Fifty Shades of Grey”…

The Hunger Games is one of those books you don’t have to have read to know what it’s about.  I know the entire story based on the bits and pieces of mentally reassembled conversations I’ve overheard about it.  At its heart, it seems to be a story about a desperate society resorting to mortal violence between youths as a means of entertainment and survival.  It’s gritty and compelling by young adult fiction standards, and my guess is that this is because it is meant, at least in part, to be a cautionary tale about a civilization increasingly obsessed with violence as amusement.  “Take a peek”, the author seems to be saying, “at our inevitable future, unless cooler heads prevail.”

Which is bunk.

Don’t misunderstand me.  The book is probably great and everything.  So is the movie (I am told).  But I suggest that a huge reason why we, as a culture, are enthralled by The Hunger Games is not that it represents a cautionary morality tale about our potential future, but a delectable (albeit caricaturized) glimpse of something we all secretly hunger for: risk and danger.

Let’s back up a step and look at another hugely popular type of story: literary erotica.  This genre has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight because of the book Fifty Shades of Grey.  If, by some chance, you haven’t heard of it, it is apparently a bit of Twilight fan fiction loaded with dangerously kinky sex with all the names changed to make it publishable.  It is apparently terribly written, but really, who’s reading this stuff for the prose?  Good writing in erotica is like a clean, pleasant employee at a comic book shop: a pleasant surprise, but hardly expected or necessarily required.  No, people read erotica* for two reasons.

Reason one: they want to experience their fantasies in a safe way.  Most people dream about it, even if they don’t admit it– the torrid affair, the forbidden romance, the illicit attraction, etc.  Erotica gives readers a way to explore those fantasies safely, without the risk of ruined reputations, hurt feelings, or icky diseases.  Which brings us to…

Reason two: they want to feel justified in not practically exploring those fantasies themselves.  Thus, when the steamy bits have all been enjoyed, it is generally essential that the characters reap some negative consequence from their lack of propriety.  By watching the characters’ lives devolve into chaos because of their faulty inhibitions, the reader proves to him/herself that they are the smart ones for standing by their moral guns.  Thus, arguably, literary erotica tends to actually bolster healthy lifestyle choices.

“Don’t look at me like that.  I’m reading this for the good of society.”

Or not.  I don’t really know.  I do think it’s safe to say that most people who read a lot of literary erotica are probably not engaging in it themselves, since they’d probably be far too busy either having the torrid affairs or reaping the resulting consequences to find any time to read about them.  Plus, how exciting could the stories really be if you were doing it all yourself?  It’d be like a guy on a roller coaster reading a book about riding roller coasters.

So, back to The Hunger Games.

On the surface of it, it seems that this is a cautionary tale– a warning about a culture that has devolved to the point where mortal combat is entertainment.  And it makes sense, right?  After all, decades ago we made Mortal Kombat into a very popular miss-spelled video game, complete with vicious death moves and a sadistic narrator commanding players to “FINISH HIM” (even when the opposing character was a female, which just seems pointlessly callous).  Nowadays, we have even more bloody video games, etc, etc, etc.

Thanks to my geek friends for this image of Mortal Kombat teaching a generation how to dance.

Here’s the thing, though: people like danger.  We long for risks, and challenges, and actual, potential peril.  It’s what motivates most of our recreational activities.  Competition, at its purest, is risk.  It’s the danger of losing face, especially after all that inevitable trash talk we indulged in prior to the game.  Risk motivates us at nearly every turn.  Think about almost every pep talk and inspiration speech you’ve ever heard.  What was it’s core concept?  To play it safe, do nothing difficult, and ride the current of mediocrity?  If so, that was one terrible, terrible motivational speaker and you should probably head down to his van by the river and demand your money back if he hasn’t already spent it all on beef jerky and RC Cola.  No, the point of every empowering concept is to take risks— to push out of one’s comfort zone, attempt the seemingly impossible, damn the torpedoes, brave the consequences, and generally put it all on the line.

Why?  Because without the possibility of failure, there is no potential for reward.  Every good thing only comes after a scary risk:  going for the big job promotion, asking that unattainable girl out, investing in a new business, writing a story and showing it to the world, all of it hinges on the possibility of spectacular failure.

Risk and danger are the salt of life.  We don’t just enjoy it– we need it.

translation: KID MAGNET

And yet, our society is consistently, increasingly, painstakingly weeding all the risk out of our lives.

There used to be risk in eating too much and turning into a fat, sweaty, heart-attack-impending social pariah.  Now, obesity isn’t our fault– we’re victims of big fast food and Little Debbie.  In the age of class action lawsuits against McDonalds, major documentaries pointing out your helplessness in the face of the food industry, and new laws taking over the decision of how much soda you can have at any one time, we can all assume we are no longer responsible for what gets shoved into our mouths.  No responsibility equals no risk.

There used to be risk in buying a house and potentially not being able to afford the payments.  Now, there are entire industries catering to well-meaning victims of poor financial choices.  It isn’t our fault, they tell us.  Get what we deserve, they tell us.  Now, there are proposed programs to use eminent domain to buy foreclosed houses from lenders and give them back to the defaulted homeowners at greatly reduced mortgages.  Thus, if someone can no longer pay their mortgage because of “life circumstances” beyond their control, not only is it not their fault, but there is a potential safety net to save your home and reduce that pesky mortgage to manageable terms, despite any agreement you may have originally signed.  Safety net equals greatly reduced risk.

“…or we could NOT pay the mortgage, buy an Xbox, and somehow end up with a cheaper mortgage…

Even in big business, think about the term “too big to fail”.  This means that if the government deems a corporation too important to the job market or the overall economy, the government will protect that corporation from the risk of doing business, keeping it afloat by extra-economic, false means.  This, by definition, obliterates risk.

And even more: the National Football League has lately been under sustained media pressure because of the dangers the sport of football presents to its players.  In the wake of the suicide of player Junior Seau, ostensibly due to brain damage received during his football career, extraordinary attention has been given to the idea of making the game safer and less risky.  Furthermore, some are beginning to pressure high schools to shut down their football programs entirely for the sake of the safety of their students.  In general, the game is increasingly considered too risky, especially since it amounts to nothing more than a form of entertainment.

So the bottom line is clear: despite the fact that humanity is hard-wired to thrive on risk, risk is being systematically removed from our daily existence.  It may be for good reasons, and it may even be the right thing to do.  But the result is an increasingly sterilized lifestyle, chock full of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, safety nets, bike helmets, bailouts, backstops and elbow pads, all designed specifically to reduce risk in increasingly broad areas of life.

And the human collective response is BOREDOM.

Along comes The Hunger Games, and an imaginary world filled to the brim with risk, peril, challenge, and danger.  People did not flock to this story because it was a warning about the direction our culture was going, but a tantalizing morsel of escapism from the forbidden realm of danger.  Readers soaked it up, I propose, because we are so desperately hungry for risk.  We instinctively know that the greater the risk, the greater the reward.  Take away the risk, and the reward stops having meaning, or even existing.  The Hunger Games is not our cautionary tale, but our guilty pleasure.

And just like with the literary erotica, we need to see both sides: not only do we lust to experience the rush of the danger and the resulting triumph of victory, we want– we need– to see the negative consequences of that fictitious victory.  We must see the inevitable downward spiral and destruction of the victor, so that we, as a culture, can console ourselves that our comparatively risk-free (and boring) lifestyle is the right and prudent one, even if it isn’t anywhere near as exciting.

In short, risk, like lust, is culturally safe to indulge in by way of the story, but only if it reinforces our commitment to never actually go there ourselves.  And thus, we put the books down, take a deep breath, and go back to our normal, risk free, passion-free daily lives, much safer than we’ve probably ever been in the history of civilization…

But bored.

Oh, so very, very bored.

*I’m not talking about romance novels here, where it is perfectly good and fine for the lovers to live happily together in the end.  The main draw of literary erotica is the forbidden aspect of it.

The Political Rosetta Stone

For a few years now I have been sincerely seeking to understand the perspective of people with differing opinions, particularly regarding political issues.  As a result, I’ve learned a few shocking, undeniable truths.  The first is that there are obnoxious morons on both sides.  The second is that, for the most part, the obnoxious morons are the minority.  And the third (and perhaps most shocking of all) is that most liberals and conservatives actually want the same things.  They all want to take care of themselves, their families and their communities, and they all prize their concept of freedom.

That’s easy to gloss over, so let me reiterate: for my liberal friends, most conservatives are not racist, war-mongering greed-mongrels who hate sick people.  And for my conservative friends, most liberals are not smarmy, lazy America-haters itching to hand the keys of democracy over to the Taliban.  Seriously.  Accusing those who disagree of being part of some cartoonish cabal of “Other” is the height of intellectual laziness.

So.  We all want more or less the same thing.  The difference– and it is a huge chasm of difference indeed– is in the method of achieving those things.

I think I may have hit on the main root of the philosophical divide between liberal and conservative.  Understanding it might go a long way in helping us to bridge that divide, or at least modify our debate to make it more effective.  In the interest of clarity and brevity, I’ll sum it up in a neat little capsule:  Human potential/goodness versus Human limitation/falleness.

Here’s my premise (and this is, of course, open to debate): the pure ideological liberal believes that humanity is essentially good, and brimming with untapped potential.  The pure ideological conservative, on the other hand, believes that humanity, while occasionally transcendent, is imminently corruptible, and limited in potential for perfection.

Try that on for size.  How does it feel?  Seem like a fit?  Maybe not?  Let me expand on the idea.

The Liberal Utopia

Because the liberal-minded thinker believes in the goodness and unlimited potential of humanity, she believes that a perfect system of human governance is entirely possible.  If there are still people who are hungry, poor or sick, then the current governmental system is a failure and must be modified, updated, or completely rebuilt.  The evidence for this is rampant.  Fifty percent of Barack Obama’s entire election campaign hinged on the word “Change”.  A popular rallying cry for liberal-minded activists is “rebuild America”.  When conservatives get irate about the constitution being “trampled on”, the modern liberal shrugs at their stubborn, nearly religious reverence for a tired old document.

And in the context of unlimited human potential, this makes perfect sense.  As a species, we are constantly evolving, outgrowing old governmental constraints, reworking our methods to accomplish more, always striving toward our ultimate potential of perfect human society.  Why should we rigidly cling to old systems simply for the sake of those systems?  The old systems are, in fact, the problem.  The solution is human inventiveness, a willingness to embrace change, and a belief that together we can– nay, should– create a perfect society where no one is ever sick, no one has less than anyone else, and everyone is free to pursue their own betterment without the twin constraints of greed and need.

In short, if humanity is constantly evolving, then a perfect society is the ultimate goal.  The American system, obviously flawed as it is, should be altered or remade by a progressive and good humanity, not embraced and revered as it is for its own sake.

The Conservative Utopia

Because the conservative-minded thinker believes that humanity is ultimately corruptible and limited, he believes that there is no perfect society, and that, in fact, the best possible government is one with built-in safeguards against the inherent abuses wherever humanity and power coincide.  The conservative reveres the American system (with the American Constitution at it’s core) because while the system can be abused by corrupt leaders for a time, it is designed specifically to limit those abuses via balanced power, accountability, and term limits.  The damage done by one corrupt leader can– and inevitably will– be rectified by the built-in “regime change” that occurs every four years.

In terms of social culture, the conservative thinker observes entropy, not evolution, as the model for humanity.  Rather than constantly progressing toward perfection, human history points to a constant, gradual (and sometimes catastrophic) breakdown over time.  Civilizations always fall.  With this in mind, the goal is to find the admittedly imperfect system that seems, within the constraints of entropy and base human nature, to preserve the best possible outcome for the longest period of time.  At some point, when the outcome is consistently good (but by no means perfect) changes to that fundamental system inevitably produce weakness, not growth.

In short, if humanity is always corruptible and limited by that corruption, then the concept of a human-created  utopia is a foolish fantasy.  The American governmental experiment may be flawed– and certainly it is– but it is the best that can be hoped for, since it limits the inevitable abuses of base humanity.

How Liberals View Conservatives

Invariably, the liberal perspective is baffled and dismayed by the conservative’s reluctance to work for the betterment of the whole.  By clinging to the System, with its obvious imperfections and susceptibility to the abuses of the greedy, the conservative appears callous, backwards, and ultimately selfish.  By defending the System, seemingly at the cost of the sick and the poor, the conservative seems to dismiss the all-important human element.  Eventually, this leads to a tacit accusation that all conservatives are simply horrible people– lacking in compassion, full of greed, and essentially inhuman.

This makes it not only allowable, but commendable, to mock and revile conservatives in public.  Since conservatives are perceived as the willing impediments of utopia– haters, as it were, of the poor and sick who would otherwise be helped by the march of progressive humanity– it is the liberal’s duty to wage war against them in the court of public opinion.  This makes it all right to joke about killing conservatives, or to purposely miss-characterize or distort their arguments.  Furthermore, it commends the mob-mentality that forces prominent conservatives out of public gatherings and approves of forty-something men who loudly denounce Sarah Palin as a whore to her daughter in a bar.

To liberals, conservatives represent the sort of purposeful dead weight that is, by definition, the worst kind of evil at work in the world, preventing the progression of mankind toward perfection.  As such, any means of destroying them is not only forgivable, but commendable.

How Conservatives View Liberals

I can answer this one with a bit more of a personal approach, since I am, for the most part, a conservative.

A few days ago, my daughter, who just turned seven, was attempting to build a wigwam in the living room.  This is standard Saturday afternoon fare ever since the kids learned about native American society.  In our house, wigwams are built out of assembled furniture, blankets, twine, and whatever else can be found.  Greer, being a Harry Potter fan, has some rather grandiose ideas about what any tent-like structure should be capable of.  It should incorporate several rooms, soaring interior spaces, its own light source, chimneys for air and spying, and any number of luxurious amenities.  Unfortunately, Greer’s engineering skills are rather limited, to the extent that she believes that scotch-tape, hair-bands, and precariously leaned broomsticks qualify as firm construction options.

I know Greer’s capabilities.  Amazing as she is, if her wigwam is built with her construction style and her expectations for grandiosity, she will create a monstrosity that will collapse upon her the moment she climbs inside.  Thus, I have to be the bearer of bad news, informing her that if she wishes to avoid disaster and frustration, she needs to pare back her expectations.  In short, on her own, as amazing as Greer is, her wigwam will not be the equivalent of Trump Tower, and it is only healthy and reasonable of her to alter her expectations thereof.

To conservatives, liberals look like children with no concept of the real world, attempting wonders that are so outside of their grasp as to be preposterous.  It looks something like this:

Liberal: “We should give free health care to everyone.  That’s the only thing that is fair and good.”

Conservative: “But who will pay for it?  That will be outrageously expensive, and it could put a debilitating burden on taxpayers.”

Liberal: “Why won’t you just agree that everyone should get free medical care?  It’s a human right.”

Conservative: “But nothing is free.  If we try to give medical care to everyone, the result could be dramatically diminished quality of care. Even more people could be harmed in the long run.  The system may need reform, but a complete overhaul could cause the whole thing to collapse.”

Liberal: “But I want it!  It’s what’s fair!  I should be able to have it!  You’re just a big meanie who hates sick people and wants to push grandma off a cliff!”

In short, to conservatives, liberals look like pie-in-the-sky dreamers who refuse to consider the consequences of their actions, believing that good intentions are the only thing that counts, even if their actions result in disaster.

So what’s it all mean?

The truth is that none of this is as monolithic as it seems.  Reasonable conservatives all know that– of course– we need to strive for better whenever and wherever we can.  And reasonable liberals all know that, despite mankind’s potential, there will always be people for whom power leads to corruption and total utopia may be out of our grasp.

The point is, maybe both are a little right and a little wrong.  Probably, both perspectives are off.  How conservatives look to liberals isn’t an accurate portrayal, but neither is how liberals look to conservatives.  That’s my main point here: perceptions of the opposing viewpoint are, by necessity, colored by the filter that forms our own viewpoint.

So is compromise the key?

You think I am going to say yes, but I am not.  Compromise is a pretty idea that certainly has a place, but when two people have such opposing perspectives, sometimes there is no way to find a middle ground.  I have a different idea about what the key might be.  I think it might be understanding.

In my conversations with those of different viewpoints, I have come to understand their perspective.  I don’t agree with it, and I still tend to think it won’t achieve our goals, but I understand how and why they have arrived at it.  Thus, when we discuss our differences, we don’t waste our time snipping at each others’ leaves, disfiguring each others’ arguments and impugning each others’ character, but we can go right to the root, where the fundamental differences lie.  It may not mean we change each others’ minds, but it does mean we can hear each other, and consider their argument.

But that’s all sort of beside the point.  Mainly, I am just asking a question.  Is it possible that this one area– this fundamental disagreement about the nature of humanity and our overall potential– could be the defining difference between the polar opposites of political ideology?

After all, everyone believes in a heaven.  It’s just a matter of when and where we expect it to happen, and who will bring it to be.

Or– always a possibility– am I just blathering?