Sunday, July 31, 2011

Humpty Dumpty, George Orwell, and the "Cult of Balance": Perverting Language for Political Ends

Language is often used in such a way as to emphasize the point of view of the user. Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s classic “Through the Looking-Glass”, tells Alice “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” and it is pretty clear that he has many devotees in the political world. This certainly include those who tell us that tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs, that dismantling government will improve our lives, and so on. But it also includes, unfortunately, the news media, who are supposed to inform us of what is happening but often, in their choice of words (do they just go to an on-line thesaurus?) change the meaning.

A relatively benign example is in the article in the New York Times’ on July 30, 2011 by Judy Battista, Off-Season Reduced, N.F.L. Runs Through Millions (begun on page 1, not even the Sports section), which contains the following phrase near the beginning: “From the moment team owners and players signed off Monday on an agreement to end the league’s longest work stoppage…” Excuse me, it was a lockout. “Work stoppage” definitely implies that work was stopped by a decision of the workers, in this case football players, or a strike. To use this term when in fact the owners of the teams were the ones who refused to let the players work is not only incorrect, it shifts blame, and thus changes the facts of the story.

In Ms. Battista’s case, perhaps there was not an intent to mislead, but simply a poor understanding of the difference of who is at fault. However, that difference is important. If I come up and punch you in the face and knock you down, it is an “attack”, not a “fight”; using the latter word implies equal involvement, if not culpability. More frighteningly, however, there is the possibility that she and other reporters, unintentionally, intentionally, or through the intercession of their editors, misunderstand the need to be fair to mean a need to evenly attribute responsibility.

This tendency, and its malignant effects, is very well described by Paul Krugman in The Centrist Cop-Out (NY Times, 7/29/11).  In discussing the “debate” in Congress on raising the debt ceiling, he notes that “News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent,” which they are not; both the Democrats in Congress and particularly President Obama have made concession after concession, so much so that the President’s plan, which includes not only concessions on tax cuts for billionaires but major cuts to Social Security and Medicare, is far to the right of anything proposed by a Republican president. Yet “pundits fantasize about some kind of ‘centrist’ uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.”

Krugman continues: “Some of us have long complained about the cult of ‘balance,’ the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet.’“ Or, for another example, whether evolution and creationism are equally valid “theories”. His question about this approach is whether it would “….still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?”, and concludes that “The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.”

There is power in words. Years after Humpty Dumpty, Adolf Hitler described the value of the “big lie” in his book ­­­­Mein Kampf (cited in my Medicine and Social Justice blog piece Should it be a crime to be poor, or, instead, to criminalize poverty?,  August 16, 2009). George Orwell, looking at both Nazism and Stalinism, codified purposeful misstatement in ­1984 with the language of “Newspeak” (discarding those pesky accurate meanings in “Oldspeak”).  The Nazis placed the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes freedom”) over the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. Orwell, in his earlier novel Animal Farm, describes the gates to farm proclaiming

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

Is this where we are headed? With the virulently conservative Fox News (owned by the somewhat embattled but not yet chastened Rupert Murdoch) proclaim itself as “Fair and Balanced” being a model, and the misuse of the “cult of balance”, we well may be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Will debt failure finally cause the rich to feel some pain?

So why should we care if the debt ceiling is not raised?
Will a decrease in the US debt rating hurt working people, poor people, regular people?
Maybe. But of course they are already being hurt. They, not the wealthy, not the bankers, are the ones who have suffered from the recession with losing their jobs, losing their homes, and losing their hope.
Can the pundits point to arcane, 3-steps later, ways in which the failure to raise the debt ceiling will hurt them even more? Probably.
But the proposed solutions, from the President and even worse from the Republicans, will institute permanent cuts in the programs that provide any benefits for regular folks. So it is unlikely that they would do any worse with a debt failure.
If the stock and bond markets suffer, if the bankers and billionaires suffer, good. It's time for them to feel some pain.
They probably won't, though. No matter what happens, the government will make sure that the rich and powerful are insulated, and the rest of us pay the price.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

NASA & Interstate Highways: Can you believe they actually happened?

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With the last shuttle from Cape Canaveral ending its final mission, the US space program is, for the time at least, over. Folks who have been NASA employees for 20 or more years are losing their jobs. We will depend upon Russian rockets to service the space station. This has disappointed many Americans, who see it as an ignominious event. It is. Not because “the Russians have won” (they haven’t, and it isn’t the cold war any more anyway), but because the energy and promise of the space program, the landing of a human on the moon, the energy and excitement of discovery and challenge, the fact that this country was willing to invest a lot of money in something that was about discovery and challenge (and, ok, maybe a little bit of war; think Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars”, fortunately junked) is something that seems like a historical event that won’t come again.  Can anyone imagine the government funding such a long-term, ambitious and expensive program?

It is not the only one. Recently, we took a vacation, driving to Colorado along Interstate 70. Some of us are old enough to remember when there was not an Interstate Highway system. Begun under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, and expanding in the 1960s, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system is an incredible network spanning and crisscrossing the country. How could we ever do without it? How would trucks carry our goods? How would we get anywhere? Before it, there were some toll-funded limited access highways (many of which were integrated into the Interstate system) but most trips took us through small towns with stoplights. Maybe it was good for the small towns – we stopped for lunch at locally owned diners, and if we ignored the 25 mph signs might contribute to the town coffers. But it took a whole lot longer to get anywhere. According to the Wikipedia entry:

“The Interstate Highway System was authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 – popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 – on June 29.
The opening of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in 1992 is often cited as the completion of the originally planned system. The initial cost estimate for the system was $25 billion over 12 years; it ended up costing $114 billion (adjusted for inflation, $425 billion in 2006 dollars) and took 35 years.

Good thing we did it then. Can’t imagine doing it now. I bet you can think of a lot of other examples like these two. No longer a bold and innovative leader, the US has just become a giant form of third-world kleptocracy, whose government exists to protect a tiny portion of the population as they take everything for themselves.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ira Hayes: Heroes, Victims and the Photos of War

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Recently, I thought of Ira Hayes (the reason is not important). Actually, I thought of the only thing about the way I had heard of him, the Ballad of Ira Hayes by Peter LaFarge. The song was also recorded by others, including Johnny Cash.

Ira Hayes was a war hero, a Marine who with 4 fellow Marines (Rene Gagnon, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley and Mike Strank) and a Navy Corpsman, John Bradley, were immortalized in the act of raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. The photo, taken by Joe Rosenthal, may well be the iconic photograph of World War II.   Three of them, Strank, Sousley, and Block lost their lives on Iwo Jima shortly after. The other 3 survived to become national heroes, honored by both President Roosevelt and later brought to the White House by President Truman. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Sacaton, AZ, did not relish the limelight but was, apparently, consumed with depression at the loss of not only these three, but also many others. He is quoted as saying "How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?" Hayes became an alcoholic and died from this disease at the age of 32 in 1955.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine who went to war”

The author of these powerful lyrics, Peter LaFarge (son of Oliver LaFarge, author of the classic Laughing Boy) himself died at age 34 in 1965.

If Rosenthal’s photo on Iwo Jima is the iconic photo of WWII, I would guess that there are comparable iconic photos of every war since the invention of photography. Two that come to my mind are the “Fallen Soldier” taken during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 by Robert Capa,
and the photo of the naked child (later identified as Phan Thi Kim Phúc) running down the road, burned on the back from napalm in Trang Bang, Vietnam in 1972, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Huyn Cong (Nick) Út.
I am sure there are others than people can think of, from WWI and Korea as well as our many more recent wars. But if the three I have cited share the fact that they are representatives of their wars, they are also very different. The oldest, Capa’s, shows what we should expect in war, the soldier dying. Rosenthal’s photo of Hayes and his companions represents heroism, bravery, honor and victory – the raising of the Stars and Stripes on the highest point on what had been an enemy-held island. And Út’s photo depicts the horror of war’s effects on innocents, civilians, on children.

But it is not that simple, of course.  Pham (now known as Kim Phúc), the victim, while badly burned (a victim of an attack by South Vietnamese pilot who mistook the group of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians running from a temple to safety as the “enemy”), grew up to attend medical school and find political asylum in Canada, where she has lived and established the Kim Phuc Foundation. The heroes, Hayes and his compatriots, suffered, for the most part, depression and premature death. Photographs are very powerful, but everything is not always as it seems in pictures.
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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Religion and the YMCA of the Rockies

That the YMCA of the Rockies (YMCA-R), where we are spending our vacation at the Snow Mountain Ranch, is Christian, is an obvious tautology; it is the YMCA. It is also overwhelmingly white. But the prominence of specifically Christian themes permeating the environment here is a bit surprising. The YMCA has evolved over the years (see Wikipedia reference) from an evangelical group doing social service solely as a vehicle for “saving souls” to a recognition that social action, social justice, and social responsibility are the cornerstones of demonstrating their religious values.

Clearly, the YMCA is not been anywhere near as strong and persistent in its opposition to social evils such as racism and the oppression of women as the Young Women’s Christian Association, which in 1970 adopted the statement that “The Association will thrust its collective power toward the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary”, and has annually reaffirmed this commitment since (statement of Lake County, IL YWCA). Indeed, the entire guiding principle of the YWCA in the US is impressive:
Our mission is to empower women and girls and to eliminate racism. The Young Women's Christian Association of the United States of America is a women's membership movement nourished by its roots in the Christian faith and sustained by the richness of many beliefs and values. Strengthened by diversity, the Association draws together members who strive to create opportunities for women's growth, leadership and power in order to attain a common vision: peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all people. The Association will thrust its collective power toward the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary.

Nonetheless, in 1973 the 6th World Council of the YMCA met in Kampala, Uganda (for the first time in Africa), and developed the “Kampala Principles” emphasizing a global viewpoint and the need to take political positions on international questions; in 1985, the World Council took a strong stand against apartheid.  Later, in the 1990s, the YMCA adopted its four core principles: Caring, Respect, Honesty, and Responsibility (so color coded). The Salt Lake City YMCA, for example attaches a quotation to each of these:
Caring: To love others, to be sensitve to the well-being of others, to help others.
"Where there is love, there is life." Gandhi
Honesty: To tell the truth, to act in such a way that you are worthy of trust, to have integrity; making sure your choices match your values. "Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." Thomas Jefferson
Respect: To treat others as you would have them treat you; to value the worth of every person, including yourself. "You don't have to be handicapped to be different. Everyone's different." Kim Peek
Responsibility: To do what is right, what you ought to do; to be accountable for your behavior and obligations. "The time is always right to do what is right." Martin Luther King, Jr.

The YMCA of the Rockies has added a fifth, Faith, in purple, and the quotations it uses for support of these values (on all tables in the dining hall) are all from the New Testament: Hebrews 13:18 (Honesty), Matthew (2 good ones, 25:40 for Caring, and 7:12 for Respect), and 2 Thessalonians (3:13b for Responsibility).  OK, it is Christian. All of the depictions of values at YMCA-R are about the individual, the individual’s relationship with God, stewardship for God’s creations (thus, the actual role of YMCA-R in maintaining this huge parcel of land) and finding communion with God.

Beyond the Bible verses above, the Mission Statement includes "the specific Christian principles:
  • appreciation of God's beauty; an understanding of Scriptures
  • meaningful relationships with family; character development particularly in youth; and
  • responsible stewardship of God's gifts.
Little or none of it, other than the emphasis on conferences and family reunions (their core business), has any social context, or sees its religious mission in bringing people together to make the world a better place. The only relationships described are with family (which is fine), but not with anyone else. This is somewhat disappointing, but then again I am not Christian, or even religious, so what do I know?

Only that some of the most important work being done in this country and around the world is being done by people motivated by their Christian beliefs, fundamentally from the New Testament. I am saddened to see that there is so little emphasis on those core values in evidence here at YMCA-R.