Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Misinformation Society: The Liars Leading the Ignorant.


By Tom Kando

Only one thing aggravates me more than the mistakes of the electorate - as exemplified by the Democratic loss in Massachusetts on January 19: The conformity and stupidity of the media chatter afterwards.

The pundits have been Monday-morning-quarter backing ever since. They got it all figured out: Take Michael Gerson, Washington Post, Jan. 22: People are angry at Obama; he must scale back health reform. Or a professor recently interviewed on NPR: People are concerned about the deficit. Or other “experts,” who see the voters’ desire for the country to move more to the center (Republicans are at the center?), or the independent voter’s opposition to more taxes, or anti-government populism; etc.,etc...

The truth is: these pundits know as much as the ancient Roman augurs knew - nothing! The goat’s entrails are dark, this means that Caesar will win the battle tomorrow.

I’ll tell you why the people of Massachusetts voted that way on January 19, and why Obama’s ratings have gone down by 20%. For only one reason: They have been bombarded with misinformation for the past 10-12 months.

In politics, only one thing talks - money. Whoever has the resources to repeat its message - including its lies - the most often to the largest number of people, wins the election. The candidate with the most money and the most sympathetic media coverage wins.

Polls don’t reflect the opinions or the will of the people. They reflect the indoctrination of the people. The people’s votes are based on misinformation.

Here are some illustrations:
1. Many people blame Obama for bailing out Wall Street. They confuse two rescue packages: TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program), which was the Bush-Paulson $700 billion bailout program for investment banks. And Obama’s stimulus package, the $787 billion ARRA (American Recovery and Investment Act), aimed at creating jobs and helping people with their mortgages.

2. We can still remember the widely publicized case, last year, of the old geezer who attended one of those town hall meetings with a picket sign saying, “The government should keep its hands off my medicare.”

3. On January 21, NPR had a call-in panel discussion on health care. A fellow called in and said: “I oppose Obama’s health care reform package because I don’t want the government to take on another massive program.”
The NPR panelists could have reminded him and millions of listeners that he was misinformed, and that there was nothing governmental left in the final package being considered by Congress - no single-payer plan, not even a public option. But they didn’t. And so, the lies live on. The Democrats’ near-capitulation to the Insurance Industry got them nothing in return, not even a better informed public, a public which understands that “socialized medicine” has long been off the table.

4. Recently, a college student was quoted in the Sacramento Bee saying that it is “unconstitutional to force someone to buy something he doesn’t want, namely health insurance.” So then, mandatory car insurance, home insurance, fire and flood insurance, clothing in public, motor cycle helmets, etc. these things are all unconstitutional?

5. Pregnancy is a pre-existing condition which can prevent a woman from obtaining health insurance. A few years ago, a young female friend of mine was pregnant. She had no insurance. Delivery and pre- and post-natal care of her baby would cost more than thousand dollars, which she didn’t have. She really wanted the child, but given the situation, she had no choice but to abort. This should please the right-wingers who sank health care reform.

Here is an idea for the insurance companies and for the congressmen in their pockets: Be consistent. Since all fertile women are potentially pregnant, why not declare that they all suffer from a pre-existing condition, and deny all women health insurance?
Well, you get my point: Absurdity. leave comment here
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Quotes of the Day

By Madeleine Kando

After the recent victory by Republican Scott Brown over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, I came across an old quote by Bertolt Brecht, which I thought was very applicable. I took some liberty in reproducing it here:

1) Only the stupidest hogs choose their own butcher.

Here are a few more quotes that I like:
2) Republicans vote to have the same sky as the corporate giants. They just don’t get the same horizon.

3) If only God had limited the Republicans’ stupidity, not just their intelligence.

And here are some quotes that apply to the Democrats:
1. The one sure way to conciliate a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured.
2. Bush poisoned the soup that Obama has to eat.
3. Don't be afraid of Republicans so much as an inadequate Democrat.
4. There are many elements to a Presidency. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two.

And some for the Independents:
5. It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up one.
6. Hungry men are reaching for the bible, it is a weapon.
7. Society cannot communicate so long as it is split into warring factions.
8. The law was made for the exploitation of those who don't understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.

Any more you can think of? leave comment here
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

By Tom Kando

So the Republicans won in Massachusetts, and health care reform is on life support. I know, the electorate is angry, we have 11% unemployment. So the voters take it out on whoever happens to be in charge. Always happens. But Americans are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. They are replacing the folks who have been trying to solve the country’s problems for less than a year - however imperfectly - by those who caused those problems. They do this because they believe the lies of demagogues like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News:

Lie #1: The Obama administration is to blame for the recession. The President has had barely one year to undo the catastrophe caused by 8 years of Republican mismanagement (more if you go back to Reagan). How can people have such short memory?

Lie #2: The government has spent too much money on things like the stimulus. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has often explained that the country needs to spend more stimulus money, not less. People are confusing the two recovery programs, blaming the Obama administration for bailing out the fat cats at taxpayer’s expense. But remember that TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program) was the Bush-Paulson $700 billion bailout program for investment banks. Obama’s stimulus package was the $787 billion ARRA (American Recovery and Investment Act), aimed at creating jobs and helping people with their mortgages.

The Bush recession was not caused by excessive government spending and meddling, but by precisely the opposite, namely excessive deregulation and corporate tax cuts. The world crisis was caused by Wall Street, not by Uncle Sam, i.e. by private capitalism, not by socialist government.

Lie #3: European-style social democracy doesn’t work as well as American-style capitalism. The only thing required to disprove this are facts. Again, Paul Krugman (for example his syndicated New York Times article on January 12) does this. Another way to find out the truth is to spend a week in Europe. But facts don’t matter to people like Beck, Limbaugh and their followers. Since most Americans have not seen the facts, they believe that Frenchmen are poor, Dutchmen are hungry, and Germans are sick. A few years ago, Rush Limbaugh said that “the American lower class was better off than the European middle class.” A delusional statement, which millions lapped up.

This reminds me of the fantasy world behind the Iron Curtain before the fall of Communism: Eastern Europeans were brainwashed into believing that they lived in a people’s paradise, while life in the West was a nightmare of drugs, crime, filth and poverty. They had no idea, because they didn’t get to see reality. I’m not saying that America is a similar place. But if it continues to deny the reality that social democracy can provide a better life for more people, it is at risk of becoming second rate. But maybe such a realization is too painful. Maybe most Americans prefer to stay in denial.

Lie #4: Our health care system is better than that of 35 other developed countries. We shouldn’t have a single-payer plan, like most of them. Again, just spend a week in Europe, Canada, Japan, or Australia, and experience the superiority of all those countries’ medical systems.

Lie #5: There is too much government. Government is the problem. This mantra was voiced again on January 19 by Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA under President Bush: “Let the government just get out of the way, and everything will be fine.”

Lie #6: Government has been growing and growing. Sure, the Federal budget is skyrocketing. These are desperate times. Same thing happened during World War Two - temporarily. Funny how suddenly everyone has become a fiscal conservative. Where were all the fiscal conservatives when President Bush’s budget deficits broke records year after year, due to wars and tax cuts for the rich?
At any rate, at the state and local levels, government is collecting and spending less every year, not more.

Lie #7: Government is inefficient; the private sector is efficient. Proof?

Lie #8: we need less government regulation - of banks, for example. Just read Krugman, again, for example his syndicated New York Times column on January 19.

And finally, the one for which I might get arrested: Lie #9: Taxes are too high.

Imagine that this is 1933. FDR has had less than one year to turn around the country, which is still mired in recession. So you decide to re-elect President Hoover! leave comment here
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Monday, January 18, 2010

Reactions to the Haitian Disaster


By Tom Kando

On January 17, “anonymous” posted the following comment on my review of the movie Avatar: “Haiti proves it again. The white man has to rescue the natives.”
I’ll admit that the comment is succinct and to the point. It sums up a racism which is probably widespread. It also reminds me of some other recent reactions to the Haitian disaster. This anonymous writer links his comment to race. Back when white Europeans ruled the world, such colonialist rhetoric was acceptable: During the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, it was okay for Rudyard Kipling to speak of “the White Man’s burden,” to say that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...” it was okay to believe in Manifest Destiny.

It is also a fact that at different times in history, different cultures enjoy the advantage. In antiquity, the albino-looking people of the North were the savages, and civilization belonged to dark Mediterraneans. Three thousand years ago, olive-skinned people built bridges and wrote medical treatises, while pink-skinned blonds lived in caves and grunted to each other. Today, some groups are also doing better than others. But this, too, shall pass. Maybe in a few hundred years it’ll be Haitians who rescue Americans...

And then we have the bizarre pronouncements of people like Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh:


Robertson’s view is that Haitians have brought their misery upon themselves because they made a pact with the devil two centuries ago to gain their freedom from France. No doubt the thought was triggered in Robertson’s shrinking brain by the age-old and popular notion that Haitians do a lot of Voodoo.

There is a history of such far-out thinking among spokesmen of the religious right. Wasn’t it the Reverend Jerry Falwell who attributed 9/11 to America’s sinful ways? And Pat Robertson, or some other such strange person, who said the same thing about Katrina, i.e. that such disasters are punishments for our Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like behavior.

Next, we heard from Rush Limbaugh: Speaking of donating money to the Haitian relief fund, he said that Americans already have a charitable fund, and it’s called the income tax. Plus, he enlightened us by explaining that our government’s help to Haiti is just an effort by President Obama to look good, in other words political grand-standing, PR.

The problem isn’t that there are many people whose mind no longer works (Robertson) or who are really, really evil (Limbaugh). The problem is that for some reason, some of these people have millions of admirers and followers. A recent Time poll showed Glenn Beck (another similar character) to be the most popular American at this time.

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to the Haitian earthquake - 50,000 to 100,000 dead, three and a half million homeless, etc. - was to send a small check to one of the relief funds. This was not a moral act, it was an instinctive act. I am not a good person, I am a normal person, as are the millions of other Americans who no doubt are also sending money.

It’s hard for me to understand the reaction of someone like Limbaugh: Wouldn’t it be “normal,” on such an occasion, to just shut up and make a donation? Limbaugh’s radio contract is for over $400 million. (I forget whether this is per year or what). Were he to contribute one million dollars to the Haitian relief fund, he would still have $399 million left, plenty enough to live on, no?

No comments, no editorials, no politics, just send some money and save some lives. A fraction of Limbaugh’s half billion dollar income could probably save half of Haiti.

But you see, such a man is not normal. His instincts are not normal. So be it. As I said, the worst part is that he has millions of followers. He is their role model. Those people, too, have lost their senses. Dare I raise an analogy with developments in Germany seventy five years ago?
leave comment here
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's About Time

by Madeleine Kando

I don’t like to think about time too much. It makes me confused and not sure about anything any more.

Here I am, Madeleine sitting at my mac typing. I like to think that I am going to be sitting here tomorrow and the day after, still the same Madeleine. But what about in 10 years from now? Will I still be the same Madeleine typing at my Mac? Mmmm. And what about when I was 6 years old? Was I a different Madeleine then? I know my body was made up of different cells altogether, up to the smallest piece in my fingernail.

I know that my ability to think was the size of a pea. But what about the ME? And if I WAS a different Madeleine – when did I stop being the Madeleine I was then and start to become the Madeleine I am now?

Changing our names every decade or so would simplify things. We don’t keep other things throughout our lives, do we? We change houses when they become too small. We change schools, shoe sizes; our voice changes, our eyesight... So why keep our names throughout our lives?

If had been called ‘Sue-Ellen’ when I was 6 I could talk about the day I stole my best friend’s black lacquered shoes this way: ‘You know what Sue-Ellen did? She took Monique’s shoes home with her. She pretended she had found them. Her mom made her bring them back and apologize. But Sue-Ellen left them on the front steps and ran back home before anyone could open the door. Isn’t that cute?’ Right now it is one of the many many monkeys on Madeleine’s back but if I could have been Sue-Ellen instead..

If I had been called Shirley when I was in my early teens I could talk about the day I almost burnt the yard down because I was smoking in secret this way: ‘Shirley did something really stupid…’ and I would shrug it off like one of those silly things Shirley had done instead of hearing about it ad nauseam at every family reunion.

It would also solve the problem that many parents have with their children. Mothers look at their 30 year old daughters and see a cuddly baby instead. Next time your mom tells you that you need a hair cut or that your skirt is too short, tell her to go talk to Sue-Ellen or Shirley and leave you in peace.

Yes, time is a funny thing. Take Zaza, our cat for instance. She was such a devoted mother to Rosy. Licked her clean all day, played with her, taught her how to catch mice.. One day all of that love and affection, gone … disappeared right out the window. Rosy had become a rival. Had to be chased away, hissed at, scratched and bitten. Clearly animals don’t recognize their own offspring once they have reached adulthood.

Babies don’t even have a concept of time. To them everything is forever. No wonder they scream their heads off. Can you imagine having wet diapers forever?!

What about old age? Time has a tendency to slow down when you are waiting for something. Whether you are a prisoner waiting to be released, or very old waiting to die.. time can slow down until it almost stands still. Then again time can speed up. When you fall in love and don’t ever want it to end, or when you are watching a sunset and don’t want the sun to sink into the ocean.

Wouldn’t it be great if my twin sister and I could do the ‘twin paradox’ experiment. I would be sent out into space at close to the speed of light while Juliette would stay on earth. Supposedly, when I come back I would be younger than my twin. Juliette, all wrinkled and shriveled up. Me, all glowing with youthful energy. Of course we would fight tooth and nail over who gets to be the space twin.

So what is time really? Is it just a trick of our mind? Or is it real, like the trees and the snow? Maybe all of time is already out there, like the space around us. We just cannot see it. We are like blind men in a room full of furniture. We are bumping into whatever is in front of us, as we move through life, our blind brains unable to encompass all of time at once. Besides, time unlike space, is a one-way affair. You can never purchase a return ticket, even if you have frequent flyer miles. leave comment here
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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two Americas

By Tom Kando

I have often wondered how to reconcile my love for America with the mistakes which this country makes. This schizoid situation was awakened in me again when I juxtaposed (1) Jan’s comment on Madeleine’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? post of January 9 and (2) Ken Burns’ The War - the magnificent 7-part documentary film about America in World War Two, which I recently saw again.
I agree with just about everything Jan writes, in her scathing critique of American politics, and at the same time I see the nobility and the greatness of the American people, as depicted by Ken Burns. How can this be?

The most obvious reconciliation of these two perspectives is to see this as a class conflict, a conflict between the people and their corrupt elite, who cleverly brainwash the population. Jan is right, there is much of that. I see the deterioration of which she speaks in even allegedly “liberal” media such as NPR and the Sacramento Bee, which devote inordinate space to reactionary voices, under the guise of “equal time.”

But there is another perspective. I can see two Americas in another sense, too. Not just in the sense of poor vs. rich, of progressive vs. reactionary. I can see two Americas within the spirit of the American people.

1. The enduring greatness of the American people is documented in Ken Burns’ The War: It shows not only the heroic sacrifices of our men overseas from 1941 through 1945, but also the courage, strength, goodness and selflessness of all Americans, both overseas and at home. The footage alternates between the bloodbaths of Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima and a thousand other places on the one hand, and the wise, sensitive and intelligent comments of veterans, relatives, widows and others on the home front.

I know, the war caused far more death and suffering among other people. For every American killed by the war, 60 Russians died, 40 Chinese, 15 Jews, 20 other Europeans, 30 Germans, 30 Japanese. “Only” half a million Americans died, almost all soldiers. A majority of Russians, Jews and others were civilians - women and children.

But this is not what I want to write about. What strikes me, in Ken Burns’ rich historical document, is the nobility and the morality of the American people....and the contrast with the mentality of their enemies, and even that of some of their allies.

It’s quite simple: America saved the world. And it did this with calm strength, not rancor. Leaders like FDR and Eisenhower, and the masses of the American people, were determined, not bitter or enraged. Their hearts were filled with courage and an unfailing belief in goodness, not frenzy.

Courage takes many forms. There is the pathology of the Japanese kamikaze and of today’s deranged suicide bomber. Loyalty to country and to cause is also universal. But the courage and determination of the American people have been of a special kind: Americans never became nihilists, killing for the sake of killing. They never lost sight of the ultimate good, the value of human life and happiness. Even during the depth of the mayhem, comradeship, a loving family back home, a glass of beer, the war’s eventual end - such things continued to sustain Americans, who continued to appreciate and to look forward to life, and to occasionally smile through it all.

To the typical Japanese fighter, the noble thing was to die in combat and to take a maximum number of enemies with you. In occupied countries, people suffered and waited to be liberated.

Americans were free from the viruses which had infected much of the world - fascism, imperialism, genocide and cynicism. Americans were psychologically healthy. They did not doubt that they would win, because they knew that lunatics like Hitler and Tojo could not. Americans did not hedge their bets. They knew that they were the only ones capable of beating back the beast. Equivocations such as Clint Eastwood’s movies about Iwo Jima, which show moral equivalency between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific war, are reprehensible.

To this day, this remains a good culture, a great culture.

2) But we have morons like Glenn Beck and his followers, like this college student interviewed in the January 11 Sacramento Bee. According to a Time Magazine survey, Glenn Beck is the most popular man in America today. The Sacramento Bee student said that it is unconstitutional to force Americans to buy something against their will, namely health insurance. Morons.

So the question is: where does the stupidity come from? Why does this noble people willingly accept so much bs? Accept the lie that unfettered free enterprise works for the greater good of all (after nearly 3 years of that system’s catastrophic performance).


Maybe the naivete is rooted in the very nature of the American people. Americans believe in inherent goodness, and they are very slow to anger. They find political fights tedious. They’d rather be happy. And help someone who is downtrodden. They are the quintessential bon vivant. Life is too short to be angry. Even when they get into a fight, Americans are rarely angry. That’s what I saw in Ken Burns: Even in Iwo Jima, they weren’t really angry. They just tried to survive. They killed so as not to be killed.

What this means, for America’s current confrontation with international terrorism, is this: What to do, and how to it, are complex questions. But there is no doubt that radical Jihad and terrorism are just as wrong as the Nazis and the Japanese militarists were 60 years ago.

And another thing: I am an immigrant and a guest. I came from nothing, I had nothing. America has given me everything. What right do people like me have to snub our noses at the people who gave us everything? It is not my place to criticize. It is my place to be thankful. If and when I do criticize, as it is in my nature to do, it should be benevolent and constructive, not an I-am-better-than-thou attitude, a we-Europeans-do-everything-better. leave comment here
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avatar

By Tom Kando

We just saw James Cameron’s movie Avatar. At a cost of $400 million, and earnings of 1.1 billion during its first 3 weeks, it may break all the records, including Titanic, the previous record-holder and also a Cameron film. Story: Earthlings try to colonize the distant planet Pandora in order to exploit its mineral riches (a metal called Unobtanium). This leads them to wage a war of extermination against the native Na’vi. The Na’vi are noble savages who, unlike modern humans, live in harmony with nature. They are like American Indians in movies such as Dances with Wolves.
Scientist Sigourney Weaver has a clever Avatar program: She can put a human into deep sleep in a pod, and temporarily transfer his consciousness into an Avatar, i.e. a pre-fab Na’vi body. Such an Avatar can then go and mix with the Na’vi, to either befriend them, or to spy on them and harm them. The movie’s hero, Jake Sully, is one such individual. At first, he is sent as a spy for the terran (translate: US) military, but he turns native, like Kevin Costner did. Thanks to Sully, the Na’vi win the battle, and the earthlings are forced to return to - quote - “their dying planet.”

To begin with: I agree with everybody that the special effects are stunning and that the movie is a visual feast.

The problem with the movie is that (1) it is aimed at a 12-year old audience and that (2) it is full of political messages. Hemingway once said that writers should write stories, not messages. I don’t go to the movies to get sociology lessons, especially when I am already familiar with the material.

The film is drenched in political correctness. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am pretty politically correct myself. But why do I have to be told by Hollywood, in a really dumbed-down way, that:

1. Modernity is bad
2. Pre-industrial peoples are better and have better values.
3. Green is good. The destruction of forests is bad.
4. American military intervention overseas is cruel and heavy-handed

The Na’vi noble savage is so obviously modeled after groups such as the Sioux in Dances with Wolves, it’s almost embarrassing. The language, the rhetoric, the lifestyle, the mysticism, everything reminds you of some earlier film. When the hero hunts down and kills a deer-like creature, he thanks his prey and assures it that by eating it, they will join and become one. When hauling things cross-country, the Na’vi use drag sleds because, like American Indians, they haven’t invented the wheel. You recognize aspects of Kicking Bird and Wind-in his-hair from the Kevin Costner movie. One, a wise man, the other a hothead warrior who first wants to kill the hero, but then learns to love him... The movie is a melange of borrowed elements. Every five minutes I had a deja vu, whispering to my wife, “ there goes Kevin Costner,” or “that’s right out of Apocalypse Now.”
The message, “Green is good” is also very thick. The destruction of Pandora’s rain forest is an obvious reference to what’s going on Brazil and elsewhere, including the loss of plants with medicinal value.

And then there is the military operation, which takes up almost the whole second half of the movie, to the point of tedium. Here, we see enormous airplanes, helicopters, stinger-like missiles, jungle warfare. It’s all so familiar, right out of footage from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s all about the heavy-handed and destructive way in which America has waged war around the world for decades. It’s obvious that the sky people are white and that they are Americans.

God knows I have criticized modernity myself (for example, I find Ken Wilber’s writings fascinating). But here, it’s all so simplistic. Don’t forget that the most virulent critics of modernity are Osama Bin Laden and his associates. That should make you pause. And as to the noble savage: Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto shows us a different face of pre-industrial civilization. He exaggerates Mayan cruelty, you say? A caricature? Maybe, but no more than Avatar, and probably less naive.

Another faddish idea is borrowed from the Matrix: when riding horselike and giant birdlike creatures, the Na’vi plug their own tails into part of their mount’s body, which connects the rider’s and the mount’s energies and consciousness. The idea that in order to achieve total connectedness, one-ness - “mind-meld,” one just needs to find a plug and an outlet, seems to have great appeal among the electronic generation.

The funny thing is that while reviewers recognize much of what I have just said, many of them still don’t get it: Take David Brooks who wrote on January 9 in the NY Times that the movie Avatar is an “offensive antique” (and he is not alone). He writes about what I call the Tarzan syndrome. He deplores the fact that in this movie, as so often in the past, it takes a white man to save the natives. According to him, then, Avatar is still patronizing, Eurocentric and racist. People like Brooks remain unable to shake their white guilt, and they will go to the end of the earth to be PC. The problem with this movie is not that it is racist. It’s that it is a cliche.

Overall grade: B leave comment here
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Friday, January 8, 2010

The Elephant and the Donkey

by Madeleine Kando

On an island in the sea there lived an elephant family and a donkey family. They were not exactly friends but since it was a great big island they usually kept out of each other’s way and lived their lives peacefully by pretty much ignoring each other. At times they had to interact because, as the donkey was trying to build something, he needed the elephant’s strength to haul stuff. And when the elephant was trying to figure out a repair job he needed the donkey’s brains to figure out how to fix it. But all in all, they spent their days avoiding each other as much as possible.

The elephant stomping about, making sure that nothing was disturbed in his domain. He liked things to be nice and tidy. His waterhole undisturbed by foreign creatures, the sandpit where he liked to roll around in nice and dry, and his little elephant babies all in a row, marching to his beat behind him. And noone dared to oppose his wishes, seeing that he was a great big elephant.

The donkey also liked things his way. He made up for what he lacked in bulk, by his wit and stubbornness. He was an adventurous little fellow. His brood showed him respect even as they wondered off to explore some foreign-looking object on the beach. He didn’t mind that much. He himself was endowed with a curious nature and instinctively realized that stunting his children’s sense of adventure wouldn’t serve them well in the long run. He was clever and because he was so small compared to the elephant, he often coveredd himself with a lionskin when he went foraging. Even the elephants ran off as they saw him approach, which made him chuckle.
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Monday, January 4, 2010

What's the Matter with Kansas?

By Madeleine Kando

I am ill-equipped to write about politics. All I have in my arsenal is an instinct for the ‘right’ thing. But even that is failing me as I am struggling to make sense of the events of the past year: the economic crisis, the ruins left behind by the Bush administration, the unemployment rate.. above all this nation’s resistance to health care reform.

I don’t think that even the most knowledgeable academician could explain to me what is going on in America today. How did we get to a place where it is tacitly accepted that the poor have to bail out the super rich, or the whole country might sink into a depression (as we are told).

One source I found to cope with my confusion is in a book by Thomas Frank: ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas’. Frank tries to make sense of the transformation of his home state of Kansas, which has turned from a populist left-wing state to a state controlled by conservative, pro-business, right-wing evangelical Christians.

He asks the sensible question: how so many people can vote against their own economic interests? His explanation rings true in my opinion. Conservative politicians have managed to deny the ‘economic’ basis for the difference in social classes. They have replaced it with a ‘cultural’ basis. They have branded left-wing liberals as those latte drinking vegetarians who don’t like guns. It is clever. By removing the ‘economic factor’ as a source of discontent conservative leaders find no opposition to their free-market, laissez-faire, lower taxes for the rich policies. By keeping people angry about cultural issues such as family values, intelligent design or abortion and gay rights, they are masking their true motivation: keeping the system friendly to unregulated, run-away capitalism.

This might explain why so many poor people are against health care reform. Health care reform equals government intervention. It infringes on a person’s privacy and right to self-determination (the right to not get affordable health care when they are sick?)

But this phenomenon of polluting true politics with ‘cultural’ issues is also a disease of the liberal left. Rather than pushing for more equality and economic security they concentrate instead on gay rights, pro-choice and anti-school prayer. As important as those issues might be, I consider them far less important than the fact that 14% of families in america suffer from food insecurity. That on any given night there are a million homeless people on the streets.

How did we come to accept the inevitability of so much inequality? The liberals have long ago stopped talking to the ‘working class’ and in a sense they have what is coming to them: an opposition that is much better at manipulating politics.

Sometimes it seems that the word 'liberal' is becoming a dirty word and that its true meaning is becoming so tarnished that before long there may only be different shades of conservatism. We have a Democratically dominated House and Senate and a Democratic Presidency, and yet the government is unable to pass a health care bill, which is clearly the wish of a majority of Americans. leave comment here
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Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Went Wrong with Flight 253?

By Tom Kando

I’d like to talk about two interesting aspects of the aftermath of flight 253 and of Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow it up:

(1) The inevitable Monday-morning quarter backing, the fact that the authorities always react rather than protect, always close the barn after the horse is gone, and (2) the mutual finger-pointing:1) What happens, every time, is this: (a) there is a one-time incident; (b) we pass new laws and policies to deal with it retroactively, hundreds of millions of people are inconvenienced forever, and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent; (c) the next event comes from a totally different and unanticipated direction; (d) we never find out whether the hundreds of millions of dollars and the inconvenience to hundreds of millions of people have helped or not. There is no such thing as evaluation research when it comes to anti-terrorism policies.

...or anti-crime policies either, for that matter. Indeed, it’s the same thing with crime. Politicians pass ever more draconian laws and lock ever more people up on the basis of rare, celebrated cases. That’s the origin of the three-strikes laws, the Jessica laws, the Megan laws, the sex-offenders laws, etc. For example, a horrendous crime such as the murder of Polly Klaas happens, and as a result, the nation’s prison population increases ten-fold over the following two decades. This is no way to run a railroad.

But back to terrorism. Because of flight 253, travel will become even more cumbersome. As a result of a single (and even failed) attack, hundreds of millions of us will now be inconvenienced in perpetuity. Same thing happened after Richard Reid’s shoe bomb attempt. Ever since then, we have had to take our shoes off when passing security. Has this inconvenience been useful? You say, “well, there haven’t been any further shoe bomb attempts,” and, “even if the inconvenience only saves one life, it’s worth it,” or, “what if it were your life?”

My answer to your first argument: Most overseas airports don’t require you to take off your shoes, and they haven’t had any shoe bomb attacks either. As to your second point, actually, no, it is not true that the sky is the limit when it comes to saving a human life. Everything must be cost-benefit analyzed. There is always a point beyond which we simply have to accept some risk, and forego our futile quest for 100% security. About your third point - I’m note sure.

What bothers me is our tendency to favor policies that make us feel good, whether they are useful or not, and whether their cost is exorbitant or not.

The flight 253 incident has led to a debate about airport body scanners. There are pragmatists, such as myself, who favor their use, and civil libertarians, who see them as a violation of privacy. Instead of using these highly effective machines, we hear about plans for drastic new security measures, such as forbidding all bathroom use a full hour before landing, and requiring international passengers to show up three hours before departure. Nuts!

2) The other tragic-comic aspect of the Schiphol-to-Detroit incident is the mutual finger pointing. Republicans are having a heyday blaming the Obama administration for its alleged laxness on terrorism. Ridiculous. Obama is plenty bellicose enough. Hasn’t he already escalated one of our two wars on terrorism? And under whose watch have terrorists killed more Americans so far - Obama or his predecessor(s)? The Homeland Security bureaucracy is what it is. Sure, it can, should and will improve, but it makes little immediate difference who the President is. The National Counter Terrorism Center was created after 9/11 to coordinate the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and all the other disparate agencies. It has a list of 600,000 suspects. But it seems that a new layer of bureaucracy has yielded little progress since 9/11. The partisan accusations are just silly politics.

And then, there is international finger-pointing: The other day, a friend teased me at the club saying, “haha, Kando, your socialist Dutchmen can’t even protect travelers against terrorists.”

At the same time, a Dutchman was quoted saying that Schiphol airport has the largest number of body-scanners in the world, but that the American government objects using them on US-bound passengers, thus tying the Dutch authorities’ hands.

Both accusations are absurd: For one thing, Schiphol is one of the safest airports in the world. Dutch security is as thorough, professional and effective as it is in the US. They did everything by the book. Abdulmutallab would have been able to board an airplane at any American airport just as easily.

As to the Dutchman’s allegation - false: It’s the European Commission which has opposed the use of scanners. I am very happy to hear that the Dutch have just decided to use them.

In conclusion: (1) be pragmatic, not a zealot. Do what works. You can use the damn scanners on me all you want - I have nothing to hide. (2) At the same time, realize that we will never achieve 100% safety, even if we spend ourselves into bankruptcy, or reduce air travel to a living hell. (3) Stop the finger-pointing. There is only one bad guy here - Abdulmutallab. (4) As usual, the finest response came from the passengers themselves, who courageously subdued Abdulmutallab like the heroes of flight 93 eight years ago. leave comment here
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