Monday, January 31, 2005

Winter Art

The last day of the month. As usual, we'll end the month with a poem.
Winter Art

White is the presence of all colors,
so the sky dropped an entire palette last night:
a foot of crystalline paint flecks
that create bright reflections
in the morning sunshine,
preserved by cold air,
a wide expansive gallery
bringing vivid art to our minds eye.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

From Infomercials to Payola

Another journalist (a misnomer, perhaps?) admits being paid to write material for a government agency. Maggie Gallagher apologizes for accepting $21,000 to write materials promoting marriage. She also wrote a published article on the subject for an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services.

Actually, the government can hire whomever it wants to work for them, even on a contractual basis. The agency must comply with federal procurement regulations when hiring contractors, which I assume it did in this case (although this payout was so small that it probably falls under the radar).

So, what’s the issue? Well the problem is different for Gallagher than it was for the previous transgressor, commentator Armstrong Williams. Williams was paid to sell the President’s education policy on his talk show, which he did by having the subject on the show’s agenda rather frequently and interviewing Education Secretary Rod Paige. Williams was essentially being paid to be a shill for the administration.

Gallagher, on the other hand, was just a paid copy writer. The agency hired her for her writing skills (and the fact that she spoke their red state language…oh, darn, I’ve fallen into that overhyped stereotype). She didn’t use her column to push the administration’s specific agenda on the subject for which she was paid. This issue taints her more than it taints the administration, because now she is painted with the same brush as Williams: the supposed journalistic integrity that comes with being a columnist is now blurred because she became a paid agent of the government.

In my earlier post, I called it the government’s new infomercial. It might better be called the government’s new payola.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Another $80 billion for Tribute

$80 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Liberty has a high price. A fiscal price out of our economy. A human cost from our population. A loss of respect from the rest of the world for our policy methods.

All from national arrogance expressed by our leadership.

This money is only a short term payment. As Seymour Hersh has written in The New Yorker, the administration has even wider plans that will cost us even more in the currency of dollars, lives, and respect. Ugh.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Iraq as Foreign Policy

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one….

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way. …

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies….

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you…

The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side.

These are incredibly powerful words. They could be plucked directly from writings of American patriots of the 1770s. They are noble words, concepts that can be defended by nearly anyone who believes in the tenets of liberty and democracy.

These are the words of George Bush in his 2005 inaugural speech. In that context, they are potentially dangerous.

U.S. foreign policy has historically been a bifurcated model, driven by two goals: the spread of our democratic ideals to other nations, and the protection of American interests. Sometimes those elements conflict. We have supported totalitarian governments in order to protect our needs; the Shah of Iran was certainly no scion of democratic principles in the 1970s, but he sat on a huge pool of oil that we needed. We have also professed one goal in order to defend another: our entry into Vietnam was to ‘contain the spread of communism’ and protect the democratic rights of the Vietnamese people, when actually we were worried about Soviet expansion into a friendly economic sphere in the Indian Ocean. We used to thump our chest about keeping all foreign intruders out of our hemisphere (that old chestnut, the ‘Monroe Doctrine’), claiming that we wanted to spread our umbrella of democracy to all our neighbors. But it was certainly in our interests to keep more powerful European countries out of our trade routes.

Bush has declared that our highest priority is the spread of liberty and democracy. He used the prime directive of government as his reason: protection and security of the American people. Terrorism is a threat to our security. Democratic countries would not let terrorism thrive within their borders. Therefore, we must convert the world to democracy.

The President has now extended his rationale for the invasion of Iraq to his entire foreign policy portfolio. The Iraq rationale was misapplied, used as an excuse after all other reasons were proven wrong – the existence of WMD, the elimination of Iraq as a breeding ground for terrorism. We have paid a price for that misguided decision: 1300 Americans killed, thousands wounded, and billions of dollars spent. We are now committed to rebuilding Iraq, which will take a generation.

A President’s vision, and our national foreign policy, has been created out of the same poor strategic thinking.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The voices look to the heavens, and ask Why?

The earthquake and tsunami killed over 225,000 people. Entire villages were destroyed. Thousands of children orphaned. Survivors are left with no home, little water or food, no way to earn a livelihood.

The largest chorus of voices ask, why? Craig read from Job this past Sunday, in which Job, a man blessed with everything in life, has it all taken away by Satan. In response, Job prostrates himself and worships:

And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

Some religions teach that a destructive and killing act such as a tsunami is punishment for sins of mankind. Atonement is the only proper response.

I do not picture a God with puppeteers’ strings off the end of his/her fingers. God does not wave a hand in one direction, setting fire to a house in Nevada; point a finger in another direction to set off a volcano in Mexico. Such a theory smacks of determinism, meaning that we have no control over our own actions – thus, no responsibility. This is not a pure, linear cause-and-effect life, with an act of evil on the part of one human being resulting in a direct response from God to condemn that act.

God is not in the How, God is in the Why? The problem lies in the fact that we cannot answer the question with mortal words.

Another perspective is given in the latest issue of The Christian Century. In an editorial entitled “Creation Groans: Tsunami Theology”, the author points out that

To say God willed such devastation for some greater reason is to administer a theological slap to the tear-stained faces of all who mourn, especially the parents who mourn their drowned children. To say God was powerless to do anything to stop the disaster may make the divine seem less monstrous, but it leaves us with no God worthy of the name....

The article goes on to compare past religious tenets and theories about good and evil, and says that each of them still leave us without reason:

Evil should be mourned, and redressed as far as we are able, but not ascribed to any greater divine purpose.

Craig encourages us all to don the workgloves of God, and do his/her work. We do not ignore evil, or try to attribute it to the lack of some good somewhere in our previous actions, or try to redress it with more evil. We acknowledge evil, we respond with prayerful thought, and we carry out our own good.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

$100 for Michael Jackson

The top portion of my browser flashes an ad: "Is Michael Jackson guilty? Enter to win a $100 gift certificate!"

For $100, I would ask that Michael Jackson find a place to live in peace and quiet, and stay off my browser. Off my television. Off any news outlets.

How do individuals become models for others? Michael Jackson was a creative boy in a group of brothers, the high voice in pop music of the '60s, and then a creative young man in the 1980s. His music will last through our generation, and probably serve as a musical marker for the late 1900s. But he fails as a model for living, for personal choices, for ethical living. He became a persona rather than a person: a creation of the entertainment business as a little boy, a creation of the exploding entertainment culture for two decades. He has performed very little new material in years. His impact is not from his musical contributions. His impact is as a curiosity.

And no, I would not venture a guess about his criminality. I care little, actually. He needs to re-identify who he is and find a life to live. He does not need to be on the top of our browsers.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Bush Administration Redefines Infomercials

I recently wrote a post about a slick George Pataki commercial supporting business in lower Manhattan. The ad was clear that it was paid for by the “I Love NY Business” campaign. New Yorkers are used to seeing “I(Heart)NY” everywhere; it has become the most ubiquitous government branding campaign in the country. We know our tax dollars are behind this marketing.

But the Bush administration has redefined the term ‘infomercial’. The US Department of Education paid commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the federal No Child Left Behind reform law on his syndicated talk show. The agreement called for Williams to ‘regularly comment on NCLB during his broadcasts’, and Education Secretary Rod Paige was a regular guest to tout the education program.

The show carried no disclaimer, no rolling credits in the end with George Bush listed as executive producer.

I really have no problem with government agencies using public funds to promote their services. Marketing is a logical process: make sure the customer is aware of the service and how to access and use it. It is perfectly appropriate for a media personality to interview a government official solely because that commentator believes strongly in a program.

But this was manipulative. Williams became a paid commentator, shilling for the government without attribution -- no different than Chuck Norris, George Foreman, and the litany of hosts that run in the wee hours of the morning. The education of our children should not be treated the same way that we treat hamburger cookers, kitchen rotisseries, fitness equipment, and ginsu knives.

We have heard hundreds of amazing accounts about the tsunami and its aftermath. It will be one of those markers on our generational calendar. Two stories have struck me the most.

One was of three survivors who walked nearly the full length of Sumatra, and saw no survivors. The story described the full devastation of whole towns and villages, the desolation that these three people encountered.

The second is an account of a Finn who traveled to Thailand in search of friends. Thailand is a popular vacation destination for Scandanavians; over 200 Finns were killed by the tsunami, and Sweden suffered even higher losses.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Women in Government, Part2

A friend theorized on another roadblock to women and elected office: the selection process itself. An election campaign is a chess match, strategic sparring, daily sparing by headline, a contest to capture votes – in essence, a war. Many elections become an aggressive affair, with candidates throwing accusations and counter-charges. This warfare is carried out in the open and covertly. ‘Opposition research’ is an academic term for ‘getting the dirt’ on the other candidate to use for ammunition

If the premise is correct – that the male make-up is slightly tilted toward the aggression spectrum, rather than the nurturing – then the elective process can actually favor men.

Hey, Matt – we’re gonna have to find some actual research on this sometime. I’m sure some political scientist has done their doctoral thesis on this or a variation thereof.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Gender balance in government

We need more women in government.

I recently watched the movie “Spiderman 2” with my wife and son. Andrew and I had already seen it at the theatre, but we convinced Pam that she should see it. We rented and played it at home. After about 30 minutes, she commented, “This is such a guy movie.”

Andrew and I were taken aback. Spiderman is portrayed as a rather soft individual as a human being in these movies, which is apparently how he is depicted in the comics. He loves a woman, but cannot profess that love for fear of putting her in danger. Her strong feelings for him go unrequited. The primary plot in this movie is about the human character dispensing with his superhero identity, going so far as to throw the Spiderman costume in the trash. He does this so he can focus on the his full human life: taking college courses, caring for his aunt, focusing on his relationships.

But Pam still pointed out that the movie focuses on aggression, power, the hard line between good versus evil, accumulation of wealth, the desire to get ahead in the world at the expense of others.

What does this have to do with the gender balance in government?

Assign the movie’s contrast with political structures. [This discussion can get rather generalized, stereotyped, and academically simplistic, so bear with me.] We hope we select reasonable individuals as government leaders. We expect them to act in reasonable ways, and balance the needs of different social segments. Certainly, each leader will tilt toward the segment that got him/her there, which is how it is supposed to work.

But what if this gender stereotyping is correct? Males: more aggressive, driven by power, likely to pursue that power by viewing others as obstacles to conquer. Females: more caring, more likely to evaluate the social and emotional needs of others – subsuming the aggressive tendencies in order to gain an objective. If these stereotypes are actually more like tendencies, than we are more likely to have leadership that implements an "us vs. them" methodology to carry out government actions.

Yes, yes, yes, I know: we all know aggressive women, and men who are willing to show their softer (read: not aggressive) emotions. But if the scale on each gender does tip (even slightly) in the above-described manner, then what does it mean for government?

It means that our preponderance of males in American government tips the balance toward more confrontational negotiations, rather than less; toward hardening of positions, rather than compromise; toward more dogmatic pursuit of narrow proprietary values, rather than acceptance of the variances in mankind (sorry, can’t avoid some words, regardless of the gender bias).

Finland is one country where women have attained high social and political status ( ). Finland’s government has a very high percentage of female membership. The current president is a woman, Tarja Halonen. The current Parliament consists of 37% women. Finns do not use the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’; when they use the pronoun form, they use a word that is gender-neutral (and no, that word does not translate to ‘it’).

Such is the case in many European countries. I am not arguing that this makes them better countries than ours. But the lack of such a gender balance is rather surprising in a country like ours that values our supposed egalitarianism.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Advertising Government

“Build your business. Right here. Right now. In lower Manhattan.”

A commercial narrated by New York Governor Pataki. Very visual, colorful. Captures the skyline, streetscape, and the diversity of the city’s people. Simple background piano music. Straightforward, lyrical narrative about recovery and progress. An eye-catching, simple message – very effective. The last picture includes an “I Heart NY Business” graphic, which means this is probably the first of a number of commercials under this banner.

Naturally, Pataki will be accused of using state resources to advance his political career. But he isn’t eligible for reelection until 2006, and he has stated that he will decide on running for a fourth term sometime in the summer.

I shudder at politicians who use taxpayer money for marketing purposes that smack of opportunistic self-aggrandizement. But this commercial has an effective message: lower Manhattan was bombed , but it never lost its place as a center of world commerce. And it is still a beautiful place for people to work.

Well, some people…Not my kind of place, but that’s my upbringing….

Shows how much I know: the press release announcing this campaign is from October 2003 ( . Guess I don’t watch the right television stations to catch these!

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Daily News from Iraq

Shiite. Sunni. Kurd.

Does your daily news accounts of Iraq include these three terms? Probably not. Instead, news stories from AP and the various other news carriers usually talk about Iraqi police troops, Iraqi security forces, Baathists, and that catch-all term, insurgents. It’s us-against-them: we’re the good guys, the insurgents are the bad guys.

Of course, the facts are otherwise (Iraq: Land and People), and it is not that simple. We are fully involved in a cultural, social, and political situation that we do not understand. Our troops do not know the enemy. People dressed in civilian clothes are shooting at them, or are outfitted with suicide bomb suits, or are planting roadside explosives. Or worse, are kids and women. How do we train for such an anomalous military situation?

Hussein has been toppled. The United States is determined to implement a democratic government in a major middle eastern country. The minority culture in that country – the Sunni – are opposed to our plan and are using multiple military methods to say so. The Shiites are in the majority and are hopeful that this election gives them the only Shiite state in the region. The Sunni and Shiite view the Kurds as foreign intruders, and the Kurds trust no one.

But you rarely read that in your daily newspaper.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Building the enormity over time

The natural disaster in the Indian Ocean has been an interesting lesson in news and information gathering. The first reports coming from the area on December 26 stated that nearly 7000 had died due to the tsunami. The stories were sketchy on the physical impact of the quake and the resultant tsunami. Standard television, radio and newspaper reporting has increased the number of dead and missing each day, usually jumping by 10-15,000 each day. It was a cataclysmic event – but the enormity has developed over time. The areas hit hardest are either remote islands, like the Maldives; or are isolated areas of major countries, served by dirt roads or inland waterways. What little communication that existed was destroyed, and it took time for people to re-connect with the rest of the world.

Compare this to the Mt. St. Helens volcano, or the World Trade Tower attacks, or every suicide explosion in Iraq and the Middle East. Our communications vehicles – 24-hour news radio and television, the internet, cellular phone systems – carry the news immediately. The world knows.

There are still remote outposts in the world. This is probably a good thing. Our concept of advancement, progress, development, modernity, are not desirable truths to all people.

Not apropos to anything else in this passage, but I saw an interesting bumper sticker today:

Not every problem
has to have an American solution.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The President Hears the Cries

We have to give credit to someone when he earns it. President Bush appointed his immediate two predecessors as ambassadors to raise funds for victims of the tsunami disaster. This gives the effort a high integrity quotient. Both George H.W. and Bill gained a great deal of respect from the business sector during their tenure in the White House.

The Bush business community will ante up. They helped get his son elected, and he has been everything they wished for, and more. His Dad knocked on all their corporate doors in ’00 and ’04. Those doors will open again for this effort.

Both Bush Sr. and Clinton also have many friends in the international community. They both built many cooperative arrangements with other countries, and negotiated fairly during a time when American commerce became an unfettered dominant force. Bush Sr. and Clinton carry diplomatic tools that George Fils couldn’t even comprehend.

Of course, George Jr sent his brother Jeb to the stricken areas. He even dispatched Colin Powell to be his tour guide and tutor. Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and Thailand will look much different than Florida after a hurricane. All that’s lacking on this trip is the ‘Jeb ‘08’ bumper stickers on the side of the helicopters.