July 15, 2013

Independent Thinker, Independent Voter

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:11 pm

WARNING:  THIS IS A RANT.

I have reached a point where I really dislike “party base” political activists on both sides.  I have been frustrated with them for a very long time, even back some years ago when I had a minor staff position for a U.S. Senator.  Even then I was a pragmatist, and even in its infancy I loathed having to suck up to interact with “the netroots” for “base outreach,” which unfortunately was a not infrequent part of my job.  My main experience is with the Democratic side of the aisle, but I’m fully aware that it’s at least as bad—if not worse—with the Republican party base.  And it has gotten much worse over the years, even since 2006-07.  They are both shrill, narrow-minded, bound to groupthink, and utterly insecure.  It’s not enough to support a side some, or even most, of the time.  If you don’t check off all the boxes on their list, you’re not a “real” Democrat/Republican/progressive/liberal/conservative/whatever.  There are even nasty holier-than-thou acronyms for it:  RINO (Republican In Name Only), DINO, etc.

But what’s worse is that if you don’t CARE about being a “real” whatever, because you have your own views and lifestyle that you chose without reference to them, they still can’t leave you alone.  If you reject orthodoxy, you had better know your place and settle into a position of meekly accepting the moral shame that they heap upon you.  If you reject that too—especially if you laugh at them and their infantile middle-school bully mentality disguised as Serious Moral Business—well, brace yourself.  Open “rebellion” and independent thinking are far more threatening to these people than mere failure to conform (as long as you self-flagellate and accept their shaming).  For the latter, at least you haven’t committed thoughtcrime.  Independent thinking is also more threatening—believe it or not–than going all the way to the other party base and joining that hive mind.  Thoughtcrime is, after all, not applicable to those who have actually thrown their lot in with Eurasia or Eastasia (whichever is the designated enemy); it’s a domestic crime.  These people can only accept those who think either exactly the way they do on every point, or exactly the opposite from them on every point.  “With us or against us!” is all that they seem able to find comfortable.  Black or white.

For my part, I rather like gray.  It is a nice color and suits my complexion well.  When I need to dress up in a suit and don’t want to wear black, I often put on a gray one.  I also like having a life in which I sometimes do need to wear a suit.  I like having a conversation with a bank officer about how best to invest my savings in an economy with meager interest rates.  I like not sharing my place with five roommates because rent is $3000 a month in that inner-city neighborhood and commuting is just out of the question because it leaves such a huge carbon footprint.  I like not having to self-flagellate over the fact—THE. FACT.—that no, there’s really nothing I can do to make a difference about X, Y, or Z bad thing happening on the other side of the globe, because I know I can make a difference in my own life and that of the people I know and care about.  I like being ambitious and driven and living in a clean, first-world manner.  I know as a meteorologist that climate change is already a fait accompli even if everyone in the U.S. suddenly became a dirty bohemian hipster tomorrow, so rather than sacrificing a successful professional lifestyle in the name of “reducing my carbon footprint,” I see climate change as a research opportunity—and since it so happens that we’ll understand better what we’re dealing with, I have no guilt about that either.  I also recognize that most popular “causes” du jour are things that I cannot possibly affect and that also do not affect me, and therefore I try not to let them worry me or raise my blood pressure.

I care about what I care about, and my opinions on those subjects are what they are.  Do I live in a fantasy world, focused on my own life while the world burns around me?  The people of whom I speak might say so.  I, however, think they are the ones living in a fantasy world, with their delusions that they can change every last thing they pretend to be concerned about.  Yes, “pretend.”  I don’t think it’s sincere.  I think they pretend to care about everything, and convince themselves that they have agency in everything, because that’s how they can make themselves feel like they are superior to others.  That is why independent thinkers and those of us who refuse to play their game threaten them so much:  We remind them of something in themselves that they can’t face.  It is very much a middle-school mentality, as I said before, complete with middle-school insincerity and pretensions.  Grow up, people.  It does not make you a bad person to focus on the things that you actually do care about.

But if that’s just too much to ask, then fine.  I don’t ask for the approval of any party base.  I do ask to be left alone by party bases.  Go bloviate at someone with a poorer self-image, someone who might be receptive to the moral shaming, and we’ll all be happier.

(Sorry about this.  It’s just the result of a confluence of things over the past several days.  I really, really need to stay off Facebook and not read blogs or opinion pieces.)

January 17, 2012

Thoughts On SOPA

Filed under: Politics,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 10:49 pm

I’m not blacking out my website.

Color me jaded, cynical, or whatever adjective you choose—if it’s a synonym of that general sort, it’s almost certainly correct—but I just don’t have much—no, any—faith in the effectiveness of boycotts or protests.  That’s part of the reason why I’m not taking part in this.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone else not to shut down their site in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), however.  To each his own.

The other part of my decision not to black my site out is that, while I am absolutely against SOPA/PIPA (the Protect IP Act), I don’t particularly regard the Silicon Valley side of this as snow white and sparkly clean either, and I don’t do “solidarity” with a group that I regard as partially to blame for the very thing they are organized against.

Why do I say that?  Primarily, there are two reasons:  Large, legitimate online retailers that turn a blind eye to piracy under their own roofs (so to speak), and the relentless push of the Internet lobby for digital-only media.

Without naming names, let me just say that there are two rather large and well-known websites that let private individuals sell items, including movies and music CDs, over their domain name, and these sites take a certain percentage of every sale that these users make.  These sites do have a ratings-based system whereby users can downrate people who deal in pirated materials (or otherwise are unsatisfactory), and they can revoke seller accounts, but you see the problem, I am sure.  This system requires that some people spend money on pirated materials before this fact can be known to the broader user base.  Although they take a cut out of the sale, these sites do not guarantee purchases made by private users from private users.  On one hand, it is understandable; it would, after all, be very easy for somebody to make a purchase of legitimate material, pirate a DVD themselves, and then claim that it came from the private seller, and there would be no way to prove otherwise.  But the fact remains that if (for some reason) you want a collection of pirated DVDs, the best websites to get them from are based right in the U.S.A., and the companies cannot be unaware of this fact.  This makes me seriously question if the websites to which I am referring have other motives for opposing SOPA/PIPA than merely opposition to censorship.  (Told you I was cynical.)

The other issue is a more subtle one, and it’s one I haven’t seen addressed at great length anywhere.  I have deep misgivings about the push for everything—movies, music, and books—to be shifted over to digital-only format and for the physical items to be phased out.  This is one thing that the Internet lobby has been pushing for ever since the Napster era, claiming that “big media hasn’t kept pace with changes in the marketplace” represented by the Internet and digital media, and now that we’re arriving at that very destination with piracy unabated, I lay the blame squarely in their lap.

The biggest problem with digital-only media is that it creates a one-way, top-down marketplace.  For movies and e-books, if you buy something, that’s it.  It’s yours.  You can’t resell it.  If you had bought that book or movie (or CD) in a physical format, you could turn around and sell it to someone else who might like it better, or to a resale store, and everyone wins.  You get the money back that you spent, somebody else gets the product they wanted, and unless it is a direct transaction, another business benefits from the sale as well, which helps the broader economy.  In an e-edition-only marketplace, there are only a few legitimate retailers from which to buy media, and it’s very difficult for a new business to become licensed and compete with these giants.  Consumers are eternally consumers; they cannot become sellers themselves.  This is what the Internet lobby has pushed upon us by promoting digital media not as an adjunct, but to the exclusion of physical media, and pushing the idea that physical media of all varieties are hopelessly obsolete.  It was a fine idea for music; music albums are collections of individual, distinct items that usually stand on their own.  People wanted to buy songs individually, and now they can.  They didn’t particularly care about the CD itself, and they also didn’t particularly care about whether the song was played on a stereo system or a computer as long as the sound was good.  However, movies and most books are not collections of disparate items.  They are unified pieces of work.  Unlike music, they are engrossing; it’s not easy to do other things while reading a book or (especially) watching a movie.  And there is a natural way to watch a movie or read a book, and it does not involve a computer.  (Not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done on a computer, of course, just that this isn’t the natural way to do it, especially for movies where a family or group of friends all view it together.)  But there has been no distinction made between the way albums, as opposed to books and movies, are created and used, and practically no recognition of the fact that what works for one (digital-only sales) may not work so well for the others.

Incidentally, problem 1 and problem 2 end up feeding upon each other.  When trust in third-party sellers is undermined because large websites do not properly police the users whose sales they profit from, people are not going to want to buy from private individuals or small shops through these venues.  They’ll buy certain types of products (particularly DVDs, Blu-Rays, and CDs) only from the “official” retailer itself rather than risk spending money on a pirated copy.  I know this is true for me, and I can vouch for another person in my family who has said the same.  And I can understand how many people would become impatient, and rather than waiting for the movie to arrive in the mail, would simply purchase a digital copy instead.  And I also rather suspect that some people would simply download a pirated digital movie instead of buying anything at all.

That’s why, while I do indeed oppose SOPA/PIPA, I am not going to turn a blind eye to the sins of the Internet lobby that is also on that side.  Now, what about the other side?  Surely you didn’t think I would let them off scot-free.

There is no doubt in my mind that the entertainment industry would love to have sole control over sales of their products, completely eliminating middlemen and resales.  After all, if you buy a movie, don’t care for it, and resell it to a friend, then that’s one net purchase from the viewpoint of Hollywood.  If you and your friend bought digital copies because you couldn’t sell yours, that’s two net purchases.  The entertainment industry’s numbers alleging enormous losses to piracy are quite questionable (they assume that everyone who pirates something automatically would have bought it if pirating hadn’t been an option, which is absolutely false), but I don’t think it’s because they don’t know how to do math.  While the large websites that I was alluding to above benefit financially from piracy by taking a cut of all sales (including of pirated materials) made through their servers, Hollywood would probably want even legitimate resales of material eliminated.  I’m sure they’d want to have total control over sales.  Anyone who thinks that just because they are business, they are in favor of “the free market,” needs a reality check.  They are in favor of their own bottom line.  They are not in favor of competition.  It’s against their self-interest.  They are in the “contest.”

And finally, I think a good case could be made that certain kinds of activity that are technically piracy—oh, yes—benefit sales of movies and music, and the entertainment industry would do well to take advantage of this.  I doubt this applies to the people who steal torrents of full DVDs, but it is highly plausible that, after enjoying watching a movie or listening to a song that was uploaded to YouTube (you know you’ve done it), a person would want to go out and buy a perfect, high-quality, complete copy of it.  I certainly would; in fact, I’d regard it as an obligation to support the people responsible for the piece of art.  I’m a writer.  I thoroughly understand and agree with the right of creative individuals to be compensated for their work.  However, people like to know what they are buying, and that must be considered too.  I produce creative work, but if I had a published manuscript, I’d also be involved in the business of selling it (through the publisher), and with a business decision comes the need to consider what your buyers want.  If they want to know what they’re buying and won’t buy it unless they have the opportunity, the logical thing to do from a business standpoint is to let them try it out.  Would our hypothetical movie-streaming person have made the purchase if he or she had not found that “rip” online and liked it?  Sometimes yes, if there were recommendations given from sources that he trusted, but not always.  (The notion that he always would have, as I said earlier, is the big fallacy in the entertainment industry’s accounting for the costs of piracy.)  When people go shopping for clothes, they often like to try them on and see how they look before they make the purchase.  When people buy cars, they do a test drive first.  In bookstores, people can sit and even read the whole book (if they have time) before buying it!  Of course, the “try before you buy” analogy isn’t true for every type of product, but those products for which it is not true usually are either returnable (such as things like tools) or perishable (food) anyway.

Wait, you might say; that’s what Netflix et al. do!  That’s what Amazon Prime does!  And you’re right.  You will also note that these companies have been runaway successes.  (It’s also worth noting, however, that for books, a completely free method of “trying before buying” is available:  a library.)  If sites such as YouTube (which is owned by Google, hardly a struggling little company) also had a partnership with the entertainment industry whereby they could stream movies at comparatively low quality legally and through a protocol that did not allow for video files to be downloaded via browser plugins, I bet it’d do spectacularly.  In point of fact, this is done for music; a great many artists have official YouTube pages where their music videos, concert performances, and sometimes even whole albums are streamed over YouTube at no cost to the end user.  For movies, make it ad-supported; TV channels stick commercials in movies they show, after all.  Watermark them, for that matter.  Encrypt them so that the commercials cannot be edited out.  These are just a few ideas off the top of my head for making a system like this work, and these measures need not affect the videos on these sites that truly are user-created original work.  Those could stay as they are.  Though I have said I disagree with the push to make media sales digital-only, I concede that the web lobby does have a legitimate point that the entertainment industry needs to keep pace with Internet technology.  This would essentially set up a web-based system strikingly similar to cable/satellite TV showings of movies over hundreds of channels, though augmented, as users could choose from a much broader catalog online.  If they liked a movie, they could then go and buy a proper copy uninterrupted by commercials.

It’s very easy, especially in this day of black and white thinking, to take a side on an issue like this and regard everything your chosen side says and does as absolutely Right, both factually and morally.  It’s also very easy to take a simple step such as putting up a black page, redirecting your whole website to it, and calling this a protest.  It’s not so easy to think long and hard about the issue and all those who have stakes in it.

November 9, 2011

Incivility In Politics, Past and Present

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:04 pm

Political rhetoric in this country seems to have reached a new low.  Why, look at the following statements, made by and about various political figures:

  • “[Name removed] is a filthy, lying son of a b**ch, and a very dangerous man.”
  • “When Judas betrayed Christ, his heart was not blacker than this scoundrel [name removed] in deceiving the Democracy. [...] He is an old bag of beef and I am going to Washington with a pitchfork and prod him in his old fat ribs.”
  • “[Name removed] is so dumb he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. [...] He is a nice fellow, but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.”
  • “Old [name removed] stands lowest, I think, in the dirty catalog of treasonable mischief-makers.”
  • “Naturally dull and stupid, extremely illiterate, indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him, pusillanimous, and of course, hypocritical, [name removed] has no opinion on any subject, and will always be under the government of the worst men [...].”
  • “Reformers are the worst possible political advisers—upstarts, conceited, foolish, vain, without knowledge of measures, ignorant of men, shouting a shibboleth.”

Even the dead have not been left alone. This was said about a political figure who had been recently assassinated: “The cynical impudence with which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing.”

One politician had a drink or two in very hot weather and gave a rambling speech as a result of it. Despite that this person was not a habitual drinker, let alone an alcoholic, the political cartoonists did not let up on that portrayal of him.

Another politician was overweight, and the man’s opponents, as well as the political media and cartoonists, never failed to make ad hominem references to this fact, despite how irrelevant it was to anything and how personally vicious it was.

Yet another politician had an unusual tilt to his neck. His opponents ignorantly and baselessly speculated that it was because he had attempted to hang himself.

However, the problem is not limited to ill-natured rhetoric against other people in politics. Politicians have developed such a sense of self-entitlement and power-lust that they have taken it upon themselves to threaten members of the media with assault. When one prominent politician’s daughter performed music in public and was panned by a critic, this politician publicly threatened to break the critic’s nose and blacken his eyes.

Speaking of assault, the House of Representatives itself has not been immune to threats, and indeed acts, of violence. A Congressman from the South beat up a Congressman from the North with his walking stick after the northern Congressman had insulted a Senator who was a close family member of the Southerner. And far from paying a huge political price for this, the Congressman, after resigning the office, ran again the next time and was re-elected!

That brings us to campaigns. The cynical, dishonest, muckraking tactics that have been used in political campaigns are nothing short of abominable. In one election, the Republican candidate failed to immediately condemn a speech by a preacher supporter that contained anti-Catholic references, and the Democratic Party accused the candidate himself of being anti-Catholic. In retaliation, the Republican Party leaked the information that their man’s opponent had an illegitimate child! The Republican candidate later referred to the bigoted supporter as “an ass in the shape of a preacher.”

In another campaign, the Democratic Party made fun of the Republican candidate’s slogan “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” by passing around the slogan, “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.”

And for many years, one party, in a cynical effort to distract voters from current problems, was liable to accuse the other of being unpatriotic and having supported treasonous activity in the past, even going so far as to bring out clothes owned by people who had been beaten within an inch of their lives by violent mobs and parade these articles on the campaign trail. Have they no shame?


In case you have not yet figured it out, every single one of these quotations and incidents occurred prior to 1980, and most of them occurred before 1920.

  • The first quote was about Richard Nixon and was made in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, his opponent in the presidential election.
  • The second was about Grover Cleveland and was made in 1894 by a state governor who was running for the U.S. Senate. He won his election.
  • The third was about Gerald Ford and was made by Lyndon Johnson.
  • The fourth was about James Buchanan and was made in 1861.
  • The fifth was about James Monroe and was made in 1815.
  • The sixth was made in 1883 by James Blaine, who was infamously corrupt.
  • The seventh was about James Garfield and was made in 1881, less than half a year after his death.
  • The politician who was ruthlessly slandered and libeled as a drunk after one misjudgment was Andrew Johnson (1865-1869).
  • The overweight politician whose opponents never failed to mention it was William Howard Taft (1909-1913).
  • The politician who was baselessly accused of having attempted suicide was James Buchanan.
  • The politician who threatened the music critic with a beating was Harry Truman in 1950.
  • The Congressman who beat up another Member of Congress held office before the Civil War, and the dispute was ultimately about the North-South tension.
  • The political campaign involving the anti-Catholic speech was the presidential election of 1884.
  • The political campaign where one presidential candidate was ridiculed as insane in a mocking political slogan was the 1964 election.
  • The tactic of displaying bloodstained clothing on the campaign trail and blaming the other party for the violence was called “Waving the Bloody Shirt” and it was perpetrated in the late 19th century by the GOP.

This is merely a small selection of such incidents. The overriding point I want to make is that nasty personal attacks and gutter-level rhetoric are a long-standing tradition of American politics.  So why is it that it seems so much worse today?  Most people that you asked would probably still agree that politics today is more debased, uncivil, and barbaric even than these incidents were.  This is a bit peculiar, but there are, as I see it, two possibilities for why this perception exists, and there’s probably some truth to each of them.

America Goes Soft?

Is the real problem that people (perhaps especially people in the media) cannot deal with anything in real life that isn’t bland, colorless, or vapid?  One can take a good look at the political correctness movement, the self-esteem movement, and the empty-headed trash that passes for so much of our popular entertainment and suspect that this may be correct.  This culture laps up outrageous levels of profanity, violence, and obscenity in entertainment without blinking a collective eye, and yet when a politician or party operative says or does something unusually crass, it is a major-league scandal. Many critics openly mock movies that do not titillate the lower aspects of human nature, but their friends in the news media clutch their pearls at the first sign of a street-level political taunt. That tends to suggest that people have become afraid of dealing with the dark side of human nature in those we perceive as authority figures, so it has been relegated to the world of fantasy, the traditional outlet for creating cultural archetypes.  It’s safer in a country gone soft for leader-type characters in a movie to behave crassly than for actual social leaders to display these traits.

This Time, It’s Personal

However, I don’t think the “softening” theory explains everything.  One important point to note is that the historical incidents I listed involved politicians, party operatives, and those who chose to involve themselves with them (such as members of the media).  They did not involve regular people and their family and friends.  That has changed.  These days, you don’t have to be a member of a party committee to make a political statement that gets read far and wide.  You don’t even have to depend on an editorial board to publish a letter that you wrote to the newspaper.  All you have to have is a blog, Facebook account, Twitter page, or something similar.

There is an adage that “all politics is local.”  Undoubtedly that used to be true, but I have my doubts that it actually applies anymore.  If it does, then “local” isn’t what it used to be.  These days, even local candidates for office are judged based on their party affiliation and are often tied, via that party affiliation, to an unpopular national political figure of the same party.  The candidate’s individual views are often irrelevant in this situation.  Outside money flows in for House and Senate races because particular contests could tip the scale in favor of one party or another.  It has nothing to do with the local issues, which frequently get submerged in the national media narrative and fierce dogfight between the national parties and their associated issue groups.

Speaking of those single-issue groups, these outside organizations frequently decide that they are going to use a particular locality as a testing ground to promote their cause, so they haul their carpetbags into that area, set up shop, and commence the propaganda.  Focusing (or, one might argue, fixating) on a single issue has the unfortunate tendency to promote one-sided thinking, emotionally-driven rhetoric, competing sets of “facts” (and the attendant conspiracy theories about how these different versions of the truth came to be), and plenty of encouragement of personal invective.  A particularly ugly campaign of this nature just occurred in my home state.  Outside organizations came into the state and started stirring up emotions and distributing literature about an issue that pre-existing local organizations could have advanced any time that they wanted, if that had been their goal.  The issue became nationalized, with outside money being poured in, and this witches’ brew produced exactly what one would expect:  soured relations and toxic discourse among the locals.  I’ve heard of people calling those that they have known their whole lives “allied with Satan” and “child killers” and even worse.  This campaign has left a sour taste in my mouth.  An outside group can come into a region and sow division like this, then pack its bags and merrily go on its way, leaving metaphorical wreckage behind among the people that they cynically used for their “cause.”  You think the national political machine cares?  If so, I have some swampland for sale for you.

This polarizing emotional rhetoric at local scales to promote a national agenda is intimately linked with blogging and online activism because the latter make it so easy to do now.  Indeed, if not for the nationalization (even globalization) of speech by anyone who has something to say—me included—then politics probably would still be local.  This, I think, is the critical difference between the incivility of the past and the incivility of the present.  In the past, the ugliness involved professional politicians, muckraking journalists, and journalists who chose to cover people associated with politics.  Everyday discourse among regular people was civil, comparatively speaking.  The very subject of politics was, in the past, regarded as somewhat low and definitely unsuitable for polite conversation unless they knew each other very, very well.  People had their opinions, of course, but the divisive aspect of politics was just accepted as the basic nature of the beast.  Politicians certainly weren’t regarded as modern messiahs for “the cause” (whatever that cause might be).They weren’t even necessarily regarded as the social leaders of the time.  They were regarded as flawed human beings. It was okay for them to be flawed; it was accepted as a part of that aspect of life.

These days, it is everyday political discourse among regular people that is barbaric and debased.  People in the pre-WWI era who made slimy gutter-level attacks upon the political points of view of their acquaintances would be labeled absolute boors, unfit to be around.  Today, we attack each other without qualm.  A simple disagreement in opinion is a sign that the other person is irredeemably evil or stupid or both, is not fit to associate with, and can safely be dehumanized in online rhetoric.  We do apparently expect more out of our “leaders” and “authority figures” in politics, but this may well be a modern tendency to regard these people, as I said, as messiahs for a great national cause and thus superhuman. Some of the worst deeds in history were done in the name of a charismatic “leader” and a grand cause; these things seem to be really effective at making people see others as subhuman. I don’t know.  But if I am at all on the right track with this, this is an extremely unhealthy and unnatural state of affairs, and it is long past time for it to stop.  Unfortunately, since the Internet plays a part in its development and a lot of people actually seem to like turning into barbarians in their “debates” with each other, I fear that this is not going to happen any time soon.

November 6, 2011

Defending “Apathy” and the “Mushy Middle”

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 7:11 pm

I am inclined to say that a large number of the problems in this country today are attributable to obsessive political activism and protest movements.  Now, I am not talking about people who have a cause or two that they deeply care about and work on from their home in a way that actually accomplishes something, such as animal rescue, local environmental work, charity, or something similar.  These people actually do something instead of going to some public square and spouting off about their grand vision for an ideal society.  What I am talking about are the Tea Party movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Stewart/Colbert rallies, the 9/12 rallies, and so forth.  Massive mobs of people mill around, hold up posters with cheap one-liners (politics by slogan), dress in foolish costumes, and shout simplistic platitudes.

As Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, “A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”  Most people are prone to emotionally-based appeals, mob mentality, and group think.  This kind of activism does nothing but encourage all this at the expense of individual thought.  In an extremely propagandistic move, these movements call enforced conformity “purity,” a term with a positive connotation, and promote no-holds-barred smearing of people whose views are not “pure.”  These types of movements coined the terms “DINO” and “RINO” (Democrats/Republicans In Name Only) for those who are insufficiently in lockstep with the ideas of the protest group, and let me assure you, that is nothing compared to what they are capable of.  Left-wing activists accused people who didn’t support Obamacare of wanting to see thousands of people die to score a point (a fact that I find extremely ironic, since numerous left-wing web outlets evilly insinuated that the South got what was coming to it with the tornado outbreak because of Southern voters who don’t believe in climate change).  On the other end, right-wing activists knee-jerk to baselessly defame Mitt Romney as the source of any leak of negative information about their preferred primary candidate.  Needless to say, there is substantial overlap between these activists and the protest organizations associated with their respective points of view.  This kind of gutter-level rhetoric is how they operate, and it is a classic tool for rabble-rousing and stirring up a mob.

When they aren’t slandering and libeling them as outright evil, these loudmouth activists regard moderates (left-leaning, right-leaning, or truly centrist) as “stupid” and “uninformed”… and don’t even get them started on “apathetic voters” (which, more often than not, means anyone who isn’t out on the streets making an idiot out of himself).  These proclamations are what’s causing the polarization of the country.  They are dehumanizing and crass.  It’s very easy for this sort of polarization to happen when you can declare that everyone who doesn’t think just like your group is stupid or evil.

One has to wonder just how these people manage to do what they do.  Who can just drop work or school and mill around in a public square in some distant city, or even a close city, for several days?  Some of them even bring their children along, if they have any, and no doubt they excuse this by saying that they are doing this “for the children’s future” or that it’s a “family protest,” instead of the obvious, which is that this activity is the most important thing in their lives at that moment.  It’s no different from people who bring their kids to the movies, or to any other inappropriate place:  Going to that place is what’s really important, and they are not about to sacrifice what’s so important to them just because there is a child.  It’s not about the future of their kids.  It is all about them.  And that is true across the political spectrum for these flamboyant ideological protests.  Either they personally want something material (such as free four-year maintenance, disguised as “college loan forgiveness,” in the case of the Occupiers, and those who footed any part of their own bills are just out of luck), or they want to push their personal beliefs on society through law (such as Tea Partiers who want to push women into getting married because of the idea that single women are responsible for a myriad of costly social ills, when in reality it is something that requires men too:  promiscuity).

What they call “apathetic voters” are actually responsible people who have things to do in their own lives and aren’t all that inclined to drop these responsibilities to go hang around with a bunch of fanatics to prescribe how other people are supposed to live.  If this is the opposite of apathy in these people’s minds, I’ll gladly be called apathetic.  Perhaps there is some truth in it; I certainly don’t care what a bunch of naive, scruffy layabouts or smarmy suburbanites in Colonial drag think of me.

I am working on an advanced degree in an earth science.  This is far more important to me, and will have far greater value for society (if being useful is what is most important to you), than making a fool out of myself in public with a pack of other fools.  Not to mention that a person who is working on a thesis tends to develop an aversion to simplistic slogans that would fit on a poster.

Moreover, these protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party represent populism, which can be described as “rule by the lowest common denominator.”  Take a good look at “populist” movements in history, especially those who believed that if only the government enforced their personal subjective beliefs as law, everything would be perfect.  Most of them turned out very, very badly.  They actually ended up being history’s villains.  As bad as the current system is, I don’t think it would be any better to be ruled by a bunch of people who have no more responsibility in their lives than to hang out with like-minded others, dressed in costume or tent-camping in city parks, for several days.  People who don’t have anything else to think about tend to fixate on what little they are doing, and, like any obsession, it can develop into extreme dogmatism and evangelism.  The fact that people with different points of view are not welcome in the protest encourages and edifies this insular type of thinking.

What these loudmouth protest movements call “apathy” is actually a responsible way of life.  It entails taking care of yourself and your loved ones.  It entails minding your own business and not demanding outrageous sacrifices or unfair favoritism.  It entails being responsible with your money and your employment or academic work.  It entails keeping yourself away from a shouting, poster-carrying mob, a mob which by definition puts pressure on every individual member to have conformity of thought and behavior.  And it entails setting time aside to do real activist work on a local scale that actually makes a difference.

“Apathy” is nothing of the sort.

July 2, 2011

ForProfit.edu: Wherein I Probably Offend Everyone, But No Matter

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 1:15 pm

It seems that there is a battle brewing over the new Department of Education guidelines on issuing student loans to people who intend to enroll at for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix.  The whole business is, in my opinion, a perfect example of the cynical dishonesty that both sides of politics in the U.S. exude, and I am going to say—and provide evidence for the assertion—that the side that is opposed to these regulations is determinedly missing a significant point in this.  All I can figure is that, unless it is poor idealistic blindness to what’s going on with these schools and many of the people that enroll, this is one of the most cynical positions I have ever seen taken in politics.  I am perfectly aware that what I am about to say may come off as angry, cold-blooded, and heartless.  Maybe that is indeed the case.  I’ve considered it before.  However, there is not a false word in this account.  Sometimes the truth is ugly and people are not what you want to believe they are.  I assure you, when I first started witnessing what I am about to describe, it was a total shell-shock to my then-rather liberal sensibilities. But as a scientist, I do not ignore valid data.

For background, as soon as the Department of Education issued guidelines requiring that a certain percentage of students graduate and find gainful employment for a school to be eligible for federal loans (which come from taxpayers’ money), the Republican Party and the conservative pundit establishment started to cry foul. There have been a variety of attacks used against these regulations. One of them is the expected attack that it is an anti-business move, since for-profit schools were singled out. I’m not going to address this; it is nothing but speculation and is irrelevant to my forthcoming point. Another, which in my opinion is extraordinarily cynical, is the attack that it is a way to keep low-income people from learning useful skills that can help them to find good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, thereby keeping them on the dole (and the implication is that people on the dole are more likely to vote for politicians that continue or expand the dole).

Okay, that is relevant, as we shall see. However, the federal dole is not relevant in the way that conservatives who have taken on this issue seem to want to think it is.

For over a year, I worked in a computer lab where I frequently found myself assisting people in filling out FAFSA forms and enrollment applications. Now, there are, locally, two community colleges within 40 miles. There are two public four-year universities within 40 miles. There are even more traditional options within an expanded distance. These schools all have online classes, non-degree programs, and the community colleges offer technical degrees (career degrees that don’t transfer to a four-year Bachelor’s program) and job training. The cost of attending one of these schools is significantly less than attending an online for-profit college.

Well, consider this: If you are already living full-time on the dole, you aren’t thinking long-term, you perhaps have a history of ignoring financial obligations, and word gets around that you can get an order of magnitude more “student loan” money by pretending to be a student in a for-profit online school than you would by enrolling in a local college, what do you do?

That’s not speculation. I saw this happen. Each term, it would be a different for-profit online college that was selected as the vehicle for, essentially, stealing taxpayer money. Each term, the same group of locals would come into this facility, fill out their paperwork for enrolling in the exact same online school, fill out their FAFSA for obtaining student loans, including the personal expense stipend, and then fill out the school’s form for releasing as much of that money as possible to their own pocketbooks. They would make the pretense of enrolling in classes, often the same set of classes, and then… they would not do any homework. They would ignore their assignments. If the school had a policy that actually allowed the instructors to fail students (and not all of these places do), then no matter, because the “students” would have another for-profit college selected for the following term.  As long as they maintain constant enrollment, you see, the loans don’t fall due, and they can keep the cash flow coming.  With that, the process would begin again.   (That said, some of them must default at some point, because I strongly believe that this is part of why there is a high default rate on loans for for-profits.  However, people with the mentality I have described probably don’t care all that much about bad credit.  The only people who really pay a price are taxpayers who subsidize this.)

There was not a solitary thing any of us employees could do about it, because we could not possibly prove the intention to defraud.  And I am sorry, but this is fraud under any definition of the word, even if it is impossible to prosecute as such. I don’t know how widespread it is on a national scale, but there is a very distinct possibility that the poor statistics for for-profit colleges are not entirely due to subpar teaching, but to “students” who are taking advantage of their very loose admission criteria to steal from taxpayers and have no intention of acquiring an education. Unfortunately for everyone, the dole is set up so that one pretty much can live off it indefinitely (deservedly or not), as long as the right boxes are checked on the application forms and every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. There have been whistleblowers before who have called attention to the fact that people are, in some places, actually taught how to fill out government forms to maximize the amount they get.  It should come as no surprise that a scheme like I have described would spring up.

None of this should be construed to mean that this deceitful activity is all that I ever saw at this job. There were many students who enrolled in online programs, both at the local public colleges and even some at for-profit colleges, who actually were sincere in their intention to learn something. They came back to this public computer lab to do their homework online and were concerned with their grades. And it’s been long enough now since I had that job that I would not trust myself to identify anyone in particular by sight as either an honest student or a fraudster. I can say with certainty that the dishonest ones made up at least a third of the whole adult “student” group that used these computers for any purpose. However, this isn’t about accusing anyone by name; it is about blowing a whistle on a practice that I have not seen anyone in the political sphere touch on when they talk about this issue. There may indeed be villainy on the part of some people involved with these for-profit schools in recruiting honest students with dishonest marketing. However, there is definitely villainy on the part of some purported “students” who merely want to dishonestly get their hands on federal cash.

It is incredibly disingenuous of these conservatives to act as though the regulations are a diabolical plot on the part of the Obama Administration to keep impoverished people from learning anything so they’ll stay on welfare and vote Democratic. Excuse me, but that is far too idealistic a view of the motives of some of the “students”—unless it is, in fact, just a cynical political ploy to paint the opposition as villains even if it means going against one’s principles.  If it really is ignorant idealism about the “students” and the cynicism is about the administration, then I’m afraid I must burst their bubble, but I have facts on my side from personal observation: At least some percentage of these “students” have no intention of getting off the dole and regard student loans for for-profit colleges as yet another form of it! They select these places because they get the largest amount of money for it and don’t have any difficulty in getting admitted.  Tuition at some of them apparently compares to that of an Ivy League university. All that federal cash without the rejections in the application process. And I honestly wouldn’t put it past some of the online schools to be perfectly aware of this and to not really object to it, since they get a cut of the federal money too. Why else would they admit “students” who provide transcripts from six different online schools that contain nothing but Fs (because the “students” have not done anything)?

Since you cannot order schools to adjust their admission standards and definitely cannot police the motives and future intentions of people who apply for student loan money, the only real options to keep taxpayers from being defrauded are either to completely abolish the federal student loan program (which would make college unaffordable for huge numbers of students or throw them to the tender mercies of private loan companies) or to set standards for the schools if they want to receive federal money.  If the poor performance of for-profit schools is in significant part due to fraudulent activity on the part of “students,” then that is a motivation (not a mandate, mind) to these schools to stop admitting people that have highly suspicious records.  If this were all private, of course, it would be a moot point for the government, but the taxpayer has a stake in this.  If dishonest fake students are prevented from enrolling and making off like bandits with student loan money, because they cannot get admitted with their past history, then everyone wins—the schools, the honest students, and the taxpayers.

Lastly, in case anyone gets the idea that I’ve only penned this to defend a policy of a Democratic administration, I’d like to note two things.  One, I have had serious complaints with them.  Take a gander at some of my past blog posts about “Obamacare.”  My opinion on that has not changed, and I think the individual mandate is so bad that if that monstrosity is upheld by the Supreme Court, I would very likely vote for someone who promised to sign a repeal.  And two, this despicable student loan practice I have described so infuriated me as a taxpayer, an honest graduate student, and a person subsisting on a working-class income that it arguably killed off any vestige of… well, I can’t even think of any term for it other than “welfare-state liberalism.”  Whatever of that I once had is gone, and the rude awakening I had with this is why that happened. The fact that I’m using such an expression should tell just how much I have disowned that part of the philosophy.  I’m writing this piece because my conscience compels me to, not because of some partisan or ideological reason.

 

(blog claim: 5QUKZUA8U4TF)

April 28, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Super Outbreak of the South

Filed under: Other — PolitiCalypso @ 9:14 pm

I am in a rather turbulent state of simultaneous awe, amazement, appalled shock, and horror at what took place in the South yesterday, and I do not have the slightest compunction in calling it the Super Outbreak of the South, as the title indicates.  As a meteorologist-in-training, I can’t deny the amazement and almost religious awe that I feel at the sheer force of nature.  (In fact, I’m reminded very much of Job 37.)  By themselves, these phenomena are utterly spectacular.  We can read about the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a storm which dwarfs anything on Earth, and feel nothing but awe, because there are no living things there.  I was watching WCBI News out of Columbus, MS on Wednesday, and I doubt I will ever forget the moment that the meteorologist switched to the Tuscaloosa SkyCam and caught the monstrous, violent tornado dead center as it entered that city.  But that, of course, leads in to the dark side of these events.  However awe-inspiring they are in and of themselves, it is when they enter human areas that they become tragic.

Some thoughts, now, on that human tragedy.

Funding the National Weather Service

If there are still any Congressional Representatives out there who want to decimate the National Weather Service or NOAA’s weather-related operations, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.  That goes double for those representing states that were impacted in this event (or in any of the events this month).  As bad as the casualty count is, it would have been far worse 100 years ago when the Weather Service (Weather Bureau at that time) was rudimentary and people depended entirely on whatever local “private sector” warnings were available to them, typically based on whether a tornado or bad storm system was already known to have occurred somewhere upstream.

Don’t get me wrong; the private sector plays a critical role here.  I will guess that most people outside the meteorological community received their information yesterday from private sector sources such as radio and TV broadcasts.  The private sector is the link between the government and the public, and it is a crucial link.  However, the private sector simply cannot do everything that NOAA does in the background.  Yesterday’s event was, in effect, a “perfect” forecast, in forecasting terms.  It was as good as we could possibly do.  And what went into that forecast to make it so good?  Here’s a short list:  satellite data, real-time radar data, radiosonde observations from dozens of sites, weather station observations from dozens of sites across the U.S., numerical weather model predictions run on supercomputers in Maryland, and human forecasters combing through these data at numerous facilities.  For this type of work to be done by private companies, there would either be a single entity owning all the data in a monopoly, or there would be broken, fragmented sets of data that some companies had access to (having gathered it) and others did not, and the weather just doesn’t work in a discrete way like that.  The atmosphere is a fluid.

The government has to run all this in the background for it to work well.  That does not mean that the private sector, even outside of broadcast media, cannot exist. If I wanted to get some NOAA computer model data, repackage it through some graphical post-processing of my own, add commentary of my own, and sell it for a profit, I could do just that.  If I wanted to download a copy of the government- and academia-created WRF model, run it on a machine of my own with my own configuration, and sell that for a profit, I could.  Many sources have done this with public data.  AccuWeather Professional comes to mind, but there are others.  The very fact that this is all public data means that private sources can do other things with it and sell it for a profit entirely legally.  This would not be possible if the backend were all privately owned.  It is in the interest of human life and free enterprise for the data to remain public.

I sincerely hope that this outbreak of severe weather signals the end (at least for several years) of this short-sighted call to go after NOAA in the name of balancing the budget.  There are plenty of government programs that are nonessential that can be cut.  This sector is not one of them.  Wednesday’s tornado outbreak probably would have resulted in ten times as many fatalities 100 years ago.  Anyone who wants to cut funding to the NWS or to any of the branches of NOAA that have operations that go into making a weather forecast, or researching the weather, needs to read a book about the history of weather forecasting in the U.S. and then tell me again what they think.  I have an inkling that, over the past year or so, my political views became rather less liberal than they used to be, as I have become more cynical about the abuse of welfare, the inadvisability of government to support one point of view (by funding nonprofits) over another with respect to solutions to social problems, and the ill effects of federal bureaucracies in some sectors such as education, but this is a case where I firmly come down on the side of government funding for a service, and I do not foresee that changing.

Storm Shelters and the Southeast

I have harped for years on the disasters that will befall the Southeast if something were not done about the lack of proper shelter in this region.  The Plains states and (to a lesser extent) the Midwest learned from their own tragedies, such as the Woodward tornado, the Tri-State Tornado, and the Super Outbreak of 1974, that people simply are not safe above ground in EF4 to EF5 events even in well-built houses.  Those who live in trailers are not safe even in EF2 tornadoes.  There are some communities that have storm shelters; they are to be commended for this.  Tornado sirens are also more common in the Southeast than they used to be; this is also a good thing.  Perhaps there is some recognition that Tornado Alley is far larger than just the Plains, and that the “alley” for long-track violent (4 and 5) tornadoes is, in fact, the Deep South, by a long shot.

And I suspect that the tornado responsible for a plurality of Wednesday’s deaths will be the long-tracked violent (probably EF5, definitely EF4+) tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama.  My local TV meteorologist, Rob Smith, reported that this monster had a velocity couplet on radar of 290 mph over Tuscaloosa.  As far as I am aware, there is no well-established vertical profile of tornadic winds, unlike the winds in hurricanes, where this information is well-known enough that surface winds can be extrapolated reasonably accurately from flight-level winds.  However, velocity couplets of that intensity are not common, to say the least.  Furthermore, Roger Edwards, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center (reputedly where the best forecasters in the U.S. work), said that the swirling horizontal mesovortices that snaked around this thing had never been seen by him except in violent tornadoes.  What do you do when a beast like that is coming at you?

Get out of town?  I did that yesterday, taking only my cat, my computer, and a couple of sentimental items, when it looked like a confirmed large tornado with a debris ball was going to hit my house or my town.  (It shifted its path south.)  But then, I know something about the structure of storms, I knew how fast it was going and could judge how fast I needed to drive to get completely clear of any path shifts it might make, I knew what was in front of me (nothing for at least 50 miles), I knew what was coming the way I was driving (again, nothing), and I live in a rural area where this was a reasonable option.  It is not a reasonable option for people who live in a city and will easily lead to traffic snarls.  I hope this did not happen yesterday.  Being in a car in a violent tornado, or any tornado, is worse than being in a building by far.

Head to an interior room on the first floor?  Staying above ground is not a death sentence in an EF4 or EF5, but survival is a matter of chance and Providence if this is what you do.  Go to a basement?  A copyrighted image on CNN depicted homes in Pleasant Grove, AL (outside Birmingham) that had the basements exposed after the tornado.  This has happened before in the Parkersburg, IA EF5 tornado.  Having an underground shelter directly below the building probably isn’t sufficient either for this exact reason.  The best design is probably the “fallout shelter” type of storm cellar, with the main room somewhat removed horizontally from the entrance to the cellar.

The South needs more of these, and yet I am opposed to making it mandatory under the law.  I am even opposed to it if funding were provided in the form of vouchers.  I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the government to make people take care of themselves.  However, I do think that there should be some financial “reward” for getting a shelter, perhaps in the form of a tax credit or even a tax rebate. Mississippi’s EMA had a program of this general type not long ago, but evidently there was a lack of public awareness, because I don’t know anyone who took advantage of it.

I was horrified in 2008 after the Super Tuesday outbreak, which killed 57 people, mostly in the South.  I had no idea that I would live to see something very similar to a repeat of the Super Outbreak of 1974 in my region, and definitely not the casualty count of that terrible event.  Yesterday’s event was well-forecast, and information was disseminated spectacularly well over the news (live footage of the Alabama beast) and the Internet.  There is plenty that we don’t know about tornadoes and thunderstorms, but these unknowns are not responsible for the tragic outcome of yesterday’s event.  Public awareness and information dissemination may be responsible for some of the fatalities, certainly, especially those in small towns where broadband Internet access may not be available and the tornadoes do not have live TV coverage.  However, these are isolated cases.  The problem was the magnitude of the tornadoes and the insufficiency of shelter options.  Unfortunately, the South will continue to see tragic death tolls as long as proper shelter is not available.

The EF Scale and Urban Tornadoes

Violent tornadoes have struck the outskirts of cities numerous times, such as the “Moore tornado” of 1999 that hit near Oklahoma City.  Tornadoes of various intensities have also struck the downtown areas of cities.  However, I am not aware of an EF4 or EF5 tornado (or their counterparts on the Fujita Scale) that struck the downtown area of a city of 90,000 people or more at the violent intensity. I don’t know what the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado will ultimately be rated.  I have seen enough pictures that I have my own opinion, but I’m not on the survey team, and as this event is either very rare or is without precedent, they will certainly conduct their survey with the utmost care and professionalism.  However, the possibility of a “5″-rated tornado striking a densely populated urban area opens up an interesting question about the EF scale.

The scale is an improvement over the Fujita Scale in that it offers damage criteria for a variety of buildings.  However, the most well-known criterion for distinguishing between an EF4 and an EF5 is the one that relates to “well-constructed frame houses.”  If the house is blown down, it is EF4.  If it’s blown away leaving a clean slab, it’s EF5.  But how can there be a clean slab in the middle of an urban center?  Not to be callous here, but it will be much easier to get empty foundations in a subdivision a few acres across, surrounded by other subdivisions (or rural land) and lacking the structural congestion of urban environments.  I just find it hard to imagine how this type of damage could possibly occur in a city.  There will be much more debris in these situations than in a suburban, small-town, or rural violent tornado, and I would make a guess that it would be much harder to get clean slabs in light of that.  The damage pictures out of downtown Tuscaloosa seem to bear this out.  There are mounds of debris, some identifiable, some not.  There are piles of bricks from buildings that were certainly reduced to their foundations, but I haven’t seen clean slabs in McFarland Boulevard or any of the other downtown areas there, nor do I expect to, given the amount of construction that had been there.  Will the EF scale work for violent tornadoes in highly populated, highly developed urban environments?  We’ll have to see.

November 3, 2010

We Will Get Fooled Again and Again and Again….

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:36 pm

I’m proud of myself—I had no part of the dog and pony show yesterday. I didn’t offer my tacit approval of the system by participating in it, and my evening consisted of writing, class material, and a movie. Productive activities, in other words, even the latter, because it is important for us to occasionally just relax and rest our minds. Of late I’ve sworn off unproductive anger and concern for matters that I have no particular logical reason to be concerned about, because these emotions do not improve my state of mind and even harm it. But unfortunately, in this Fahrenheit 451-esque information age, it’s not possible to entirely shut out the blather. Even walking into a college library, I am assaulted with a panel of TV screens tuned to cable news, as one example. So, here are the thoughts of a pretty hard-boiled cynic about the great American spectacle.

Somebody Else to Blame
I’ve suspected for a while that what happened last night was exactly what the White House wanted, at least on some level. As the situation stands now, any economic legislation that is passed will be weak-tea, won’t do the slightest thing to improve the economic situation, may even make it worse, and definitely would hurt the deficit. When it inevitably fails, there is someone else that the White House can blame for their fecklessness in giving away half of what they claimed to want as soon as they came to the bargaining table. The same will be true if they can’t get anything passed at all. It’s now going to be John Boehner’s fault. And this is going to be in effect in reverse as well; expect to see the GOP explaining pleadingly how they just couldn’t enact the tea party agenda because of the Senate and the White House standing in the way. A win-win for political manipulation.

The idea that neither of the parties’ leadership actually wants to enact anything of real substance is not supposed to occur to you. If things get done, that removes one rationale for existence, one talking point to perennially run for office on, one bogeyman to use to whip up the base.

Ringing the Bell Curves
Representative democracy may be the best system we have to offer, but that isn’t saying much. Anyone who really believes that listening to the voice of the majority leads to the best option needs a head check. Recognize this?

This is a normal distribution. Take a look at the thick vertical lines in particular. They represent the sigma levels, or standard deviations. They are located in different places depending on the particular data set in question. This graph represents the distribution of human IQ. Look what percentage is above the first standard deviation past the midpoint and what percentage is below it. This would be a landslide of amazing proportions if it represented a vote split, and the first standard deviation isn’t even anything special. Most gifted education programs in schools have admission cut-offs closer to the second standard deviation, a mere 2.5 percent of the population.

Don’t like IQ? Think that other characteristics are at least as important for political office? Well, how about this graph?

That is the gamma distribution. It is not possible to quantitatively measure such characteristics as effective leadership/governing ability, despite what some large companies may want to believe. (Take note that charisma is not the same thing as leadership capability.) But I would make a tentative guess that traits like this are not normally distributed and are in fact much more skewed to the side of not having much of the trait.

People may think they want strong leadership, but more often than not, they don’t like the “follower” implication that a strong leader implies for them. They like charismatic politicians, and they like bullies, but these traits are different from the ability to lead and govern. They are “beta” versions of the true alpha trait, and being sub-alpha traits, they are closer to what the majority of people have. This wish for “strong leaders” is not about being led and governed responsibly; it is about feeling part of a winning side. It is like a sports fan. There is a certain psychological aspect of vicarious-yet-equal participation in the sports fan phenomenon, whether by Monday-morning quarterbacking or post-title exultation. Either way, the sports fan is “one of the team” even if only in his own mind. So it is with politics too.

This is why you won’t see the “best” people getting elected or even usually running for office. If they do run, the overwhelming majority of the masses will recognize them for what they are, far superior to themselves in some important trait, and will be insecure about it. It is a very uncommon person who truly defers to an alpha, and in nature, species that have alpha members do not take a majority vote on it. The pack system works in these species because the lower-ranked members are not empowered and not inclined themselves to challenge the alpha, whereas we humans have given every person a vote and a cultural mythos surrounding the importance of that vote. The democratic voting process, I believe, is directly counterproductive toward putting alphas in positions of power. People will vote for someone they see as more like them, someone less of a threat to their own ego. Anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism have ruled American politics for years, and this is why they won’t ever go away. The very math is against it.

I have maintained that the years of 2006 and 2008 were not particularly pro-Democratic years, but were anti-establishment years. 2010 is no different except for who the establishment has been. The funny thing about those graphs is that, once people have elected someone they see as a “regular guy/gal” who is “just like them,” that feeling tends to go away as soon as the person takes office. Then they become “elite.” It’s as if the people completely forget what they thought about someone two, four, or six years earlier. And that brings me to…

Attention Deficit Nation
I mentioned Fahrenheit 451 earlier. That is most definitely the dystopian novel that we turned out the most similar to, and people who think the central point is “they destroyed books” need to read it again. People want instant gratification, and if they don’t get it, well, that means someone has to be at fault! Rather than taking the time to examine the problem—in this case, an economy still in the ICU—and determine exactly who and what really is at fault, and why that is so, people go with the quick fix in the form of their “civic duty.” Throw the bums out! The Democratic left expected a great deal more improvement than could reasonably be anticipated, given the size of the Blue Dog caucus (a lot of which has been shown the door), and the Tea Party will see the same thing happen sooner or later with respect to their agenda. With a few exceptions, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the policy statements of tea party candidates and “establishment” Republicans, but the tea partiers are more vocal, throw out more red meat, and are as yet untainted by the appearance of being above that standard deviation line (“elite”). I just don’t see that they will accomplish any more than their “establishment” brethren accomplished.

Granted, there’s a possibility that now, with divided government, the blame game I mentioned at the beginning will actually work, and each side’s respective base will blame the other side to make excuses for their own people. But there is also the possibility that it won’t, and in two years, one or the other will be pretty much run out of town on a rail. Even if the sky opened up, a miracle occurred, and worthwhile, beneficial legislation that would help the economy for Main Street actually did pass, people still expect instant gratification. It took us at least 30 years to get to where we are, economically, and it wasn’t continual decline, though the periods of economic highs were based upon bubbles. It’ll take a long time to establish a new paradigm that supports real prosperity, too. Barring unforeseeable forces that are completely unconnected with government intervention, I don’t think the economy will be much better in two years than it is now. We’ll have this same national circus again, unfortunately, and somebody will get suckered by the glitz, freshness, fiery speeches, charisma, and all those counterfeit subpar versions of true leadership once again.

September 27, 2010

The Circus

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:38 pm

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything to this blog, but over the course of those months, a great deal has happened in my life, most of it good. I’ve embarked on graduate studies in research meteorology, a passion that I have had since I was eight (and quite possibly four), and I’ve been working on a novel with the full intent of publishing it upon completion, another dream that I have had since I was a young child. It is a joyful experience to make real progress on achieving your greatest ambitions, especially when they are things that you truly love and the desire for money is not really a factor. (Of course, it does help to know that your ambitions, if achieved, would set you up comfortably well.) With this turnaround in my life from being an angry, frustrated person with clinical depression to a deeply happy and motivated one, I have had little to say on the subject that brought about so much of the anger and frustration, and which gives this blog its name: politics in America.

It’s not a pleasant subject. In fact, politics in America has become little more than a circus freak show. I say this without fear of offending any of my former colleagues, because not one such person with whom I have even kept in peripheral touch is still involved in the partisan side of it. Those who are involved in politics at all are now focused on particular issues, a course of action that I actually found myself taking without knowing that they had done the same thing. For me, it came with the realization that I was not even an activist “type.” By that I mean that I am extremely unsuited for self-sacrifice and self-denial for some person or cause, an absolute necessity to be a sincere activist. I have personal ambitions, not lofty social reform visions. Since I am going into a natural science, I also believe in the capacity of science to better humanity, but science ain’t politics—or at least it shouldn’t be, though people want to poison it with the cyanide pill of partisan politics. With one big exception, I support or oppose policies based on whether or not they are good/neutral for me. That exception, as my last blog entry probably indicates, is the environment. I suppose that is my cause. I would recommend this course of action to anyone who is, like the majority of us are, not the activist type. It’s very beneficial to retaining your financial stability, health, and sanity in the modern political arena, because politics in this country has become insane.

It is a field of extremes, and it seems that when a difference of opinion/strategy/tactics arises anywhere, the two sides must immediately diverge as profoundly as possible. The left is splitting into a group that absolves Obama and most Congressional Democrats of blame for failure to pass legislation that delivers beneficial change, and a group that charges that the Democrats are complicit or hopelessly naive and need to be replaced. Like in 1968, there is a movement emerging to pressure Obama out of running for a second term, though it would leave a power vacuum. The other faction, rather than recognizing that there have been some truly indefensible failures of leadership, wears blinders and absolutely refuses to acknowledge that any change in strategy or tactics might be beneficial. It’s all the other party’s fault to them.

The right has already split into three factions: the “establishment Republican Party,” the religious right-influenced faction of the Tea Party, and the secular libertarian faction of the Tea Party. There is a power vacuum in the American right, and an unprofessional assortment of characters has emerged to attempt to fill it. Some of their more prominent political figures are a talk radio host, a TV commentator with a blackboard, and a half-term ex-governor.

Activists on all sides seem to be interested in outdoing every other activist at frothing at the mouth, with a mainstream media that’s all too happy to cover the degeneration of public discourse with unabashed glee. And speaking of media figures, the person who perhaps has the most reasonable take on all of it, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” is being attacked now by members of both left-wing factions for essentially saying “get a grip, everyone” with his (perhaps tongue-in-cheek?) “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Yes, let’s openly embrace insane political hyperbole instead!

Choose your poison. Or choose disengagement, whether full or partial. It is not always an immoral choice, regardless of what the hyper-partisan activists say. That simply plays into fear, the fear of a victory by the other side. If you cannot cast a vote without feeling that you have sold off part of your soul, disengagement is obviously the better choice. That sick feeling is actually your conscience scolding you, you know.

As is often the case, this much-vaunted “important election year” is utterly unimportant for me. My Congressional district is 66% Republican. No matter what your politics are, if you vote in a district like that expecting to make a difference, it’s a fool’s errand, and you’d be better off saving the gasoline money. (If you vote in order to feel good about yourself, then knock yourself out, I suppose.) There is no Senate or gubernatorial race and no important initiative on the ballot. The Congressional race in the district “next door” is competitive, but the incumbent Democrat voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that allows women to sue for back pay if they have been discriminated against for a long time (and have been unable to prove it because of individual salaries’ being “company secrets”), and the challenging Republican would have voted against it. Even the Republican female Senators voted for the bill when it went through the Senate. As a woman, if that were my district, why should I cast a vote for either one? Why contribute to giving a job to someone who doesn’t think I, a software engineer, a college graduate with honors, and a scientist-in-training—but one who happens to have XX chromosomes and female organs—should be allowed to have back pay if I were illegally denied it? There is not a campaign volunteer, paid staffer, or advertisement on the face of the Earth that could convince me to change my mind on this.

It is very difficult, too, to justify giving money away to a bunch of people who are only interested in keeping their job or replacing the person who is there, when you are on a budget yourself. Don’t feel obligated to do it. This is simply mathematical logic. That $20 will do much more for you with a middle-class or working-class income, where it is a larger fraction of your budget, than it will for some partisan organization that is pulling in hundreds of thousands or millions. For you, it could mean a meal for your family or a new article of clothing. It could mean a tank of gasoline or a repair for the car. It could go to paying off a credit card bill. For them, it’s probably a single hors d’oeuvre at a cocktail party. Even if it’s not, it’s money spent in the faint hope that, maybe, the candidate(s) that this organization supports might get elected and enact a law that gets you that $20 back. These are politicians we’re talking about here. Be logical about this. Where, exactly, is that money going to do you the most good?

The American economy has not been in good health since the recessions of the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was based on unsustainable deficit spending and a defense industry better suited for the height of the Cold War than its decline and end. In the 1990s, it was based on a bubble. In the early 2000s, it was based on outright fraud. All the while it was fueled by consumer credit, which people became more and more reliant on as they saw the cost of everything under the sun increase while their wages did not keep the pace. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

All we can do at this point is take care of ourselves and let the circus play in the background. Yes, I said “background.” We the People always have the ability to say no. We have the Internet, where we can select exactly what kind of news we want to read about. We can change the channel, put on a movie, or turn the set off—and let the people of perpetual outrage foam at the mouth about “the civic duty to be informed” if they must. Unless they are busybodies to a truly absurd degree, they don’t actually care how “informed” you are; they just get into a royal huff if you start ignoring their pet issue. But this is their problem, not yours.

Decide what is really important to you and what (if you have been active in politics) is just something you got pressured into being “concerned” about because of the righteous rants of political activists. For that matter, decide if you are a true activist personality or not. Decide what is the best use to which you could put your money and time. Decide what media are helping your psychological state and which ones are contributing to ill feeling and stress in you. Let’s make life sane again and leave the circus to the clowns.

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