Friday, February 26, 2010

The Tea Party Seeks Definition

(News-Herald, February 25) The President of the United States has announced that political factions are threatening the government’s ability to function. A group of dissatisfied citizens decides that the federal government has over-reached its authority and it’s time for citizens to stand up and take radical action.
The time is the 1790s, the President is George Washington, and the radical citizens of Western Pennsylvania are the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion. That rebellion involved actual shooting and killing, and in the end Washington became the only President in history to lead an army against US citizens.
For people who look at DC and the Tea Party movement and declare that Things Have Never Been This Bad, my point is this: from the very beginning of US history, it has almost always been this bad.
The Tea Party movement has interesting days ahead. As fractious a herd of cats as ever took the political stage, the Partiers have suffered a parade of wannabe leaders, some with a sincere desire to help and some desiring to harness power for their own purposes.
The Tea Party movement is a patchwork of dissatisfied Americans, many with widely divergent goals and beliefs. Often this adds up to a somewhat garbled message (the government does too much, except during the banking mess, when it didn’t do enough).
In particular, the movement offers another uneasy alliance of social and political conservatives. This match is less solid than a three-shotgun wedding.
If I’m a political conservative, I believe government should do as close to nothing as possible, including not telling my neighbors what they can or cannot eat, drink, smoke, sleep with, or worship.
Social conservatives fail to grasp one simple truth—a country with true small government is a country where bunches of people will be freely doing things that you don’t approve of. (Of course, some nastier folks believe that this will include freely beating on evil-doers until they behave and/or go away.)
It is easy to find ways to dismiss the Tea Party. It has cast a big net and drawn in among its supporters a variety of wingnuts, from defiantly anti-fact birthers to that guy protesting government-run health care while sitting in the wheelchair that government-run health care bought him.
Many partiers are hamstrung by a basic principle of factional politics: everybody On My Side is always right and everybody On The Other Side is always wrong. You have to agree with the dopes on your side. This is how you end up taking the position that the guys who flew planes into the twin towers are America’s enemies and the guy who flew a plane into the IRS building is an American hero.
Anyone who wants to dismiss the movement can cherry pick sound bites from Tea Partiers who are, in a word, idiots. This is also not new. I don’t care if your organization teaches blind orphans to sing the Hallelujah Chorus while rescuing drowning puppies—I can still find someone in the group who will make you look stupid.
But it’s a mistake to dismiss the entire Party. Many many many Americans are fed up with the federal bozos, and if some folks are about a decade late noticing that DC has its fat clumsy paws in too many pies, their lateness doesn’t make them wrong. There are plenty of reasonable people who would have voted for Barry Goldwater and now can’t see any good choices.
Locally, the Tea Party emerged last year with the AFA, infamous local social conservatives, apparently driving the bus. That wave waned by Thanksgiving, but the Venangoland Partiers have recently re-emerged as Tea Party Patriots. The “Patriots” signals sympathy with the Patriot movement, political conservatives who go back to the John Birch Society and include a few militia types, but who are also tied to the Contract from America, a political item attached to Newt Gingrich.
The Venango group appears to be loosely headed by Kent, a FHS grad I know of a Certain Age who is articulate, intelligent and reasonable in ways that some lefties don’t expect from conservatives (and some rightwingers don’t expect from liberals).
It remains to be seen what the switch from social to political conservative party labels may mean. I’m betting the Party is not done defining itself, splintering into various wings, and shedding the loons and opportunists. It may be more interesting than fun, but at least there’s historical symmetry in having a chapter here in the cradle of America’s first citizen revolt.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Basic Snow Driving 101

(News-Herald, February 16)I don’t know if the “snowpocalypse” was worse than any snowfall of the past, or if it was simply the worst blizzard to hit a large metropolitan area housing many journalists who haven’t spent much time in the North.
This doesn’t seem like a particularly overwhelming quantity of snow, but it has shown a striking level of relentlessness. I’m not sure it qualifies for the sort of adjectives (e.g. “crippling” and “historic”) that have been thrown at it. Our New England ancestors would have been unimpressed—not the ones that walked to school barefoot through the snow, uphill both ways, but the ones who didn’t see the neighbors for three months after the first big winter storm.
Some snow phenomena are strictly local. Regular winter travelers to Erie know that Carpet Barn and the Edinboro exit mark spots where drivers can expect Mother Nature to up the arctic ante.
Those who travel south from Venangoland can marvel at New Route 8, a candidate for the Worst Stretch of Winter Road in Western PA. I’d love to know why the Franklin-Barkeyville Turnpike is always winter’s worst roadway. Not enough traffic to keep the pavement clear? Last on the list for DOT’s attention? When the state went looking for empty land to pave, they didn’t realize that it was empty because locals always avoided building on that fabled stretch of snowy doom? All I know is that when the flakes are thick, I’d rather be almost anywhere else than on that lonely slick white ribbon.
Of course, for the last week or so Almost Anywhere Else has had its own problems. As factoids go, “snow on the ground in forty-nine states” has a nice punchy ring to it. Perhaps it even obligates us to offer snow-going advice to those poor freaked-out snow-averse Southerners, particularly about the problems of driving through the white stuff (or as Dave Dempsey used to call it, for some unknown reason, “the Hawk”). Listen up, y’all.
First, and most importantly, snow makes people stupid. You will see people attempt maneuvers in the midst of heavy snowfall that they would never imagine trying on a balmy summer day. But there they are, suddenly cutting in front of you, spiking the brakes, or careening across three lanes of traffic to lodge sideways in half a parking space.
About that parking. For some reason, snowfall negates all civilized parking rules. Granted, the painted lines are no longer visible, but other handy guideposts such as large buildings and a hundred other vehicles are still available for guidance.
I don’t expect everyone to demonstrate my OCD devotion to proper parking (line up my car with the stadium light post, look sideways, and sight along two bits of shrubbery until they are just the right distance apart in my view). But you would think that someone adding their own vehicle to many other cars in a parking lot would end up parallel to something—the building, the street, one of fifty other cars, SOMETHING!
But it’s as if some drivers are about to crack under the psychological pressure of staying within the lines, and a lifetime of rebelliousness finally erupts when snow erases that dreaded paint. And so ordinarily tidy parking lots end up looking as if someone dumped a sack of angry cats into a half-frozen pond.
Rushing is not allowed in snow driving. Once the snow is down and you have taken the car out, the die is cast. You cannot jam the pedal to the floorboard and shave a few minutes off your travel time. Once the journey has begun, you will get there when you get there—the only way to get there sooner is to leave earlier.
However, there is such a thing as Too Flipping Slow. Below a certain speed, you are simply an easy-to-hit obstacle, a pile-up waiting to happen. If driving in the middle of a snow storm scares you that much, stay home or call a brave friend. If you are driving on tires that are smoother than a baby’s behind (“it’s okay, because they’re radials!”), then you should stay home, too.
You should also stay home if you can’t afford gas. Don’t set out on a trip that may take an extra five hours if you’re running on fumes.
Finally, the legal department of the News-Derrick would like me to remind you that, as always, it’s a good idea not to take advice from fake journalists who write about topics in which they are not expert.

Friday, February 12, 2010


(News-Herald, February 11) We humans have a complicated relationship with clarity, that sense of clear and complete understanding.
We make noise about wanting clarity. We “clear” our heads, “clear up” problems. Throughout history we have fasted, meditated, prayed, exercised and studied in hopes of finding clarity.
To see the struggle, one would think there was some outside force in the world that has nothing else to do but spread obscurity and doubt. Most religions’ bad guy is the one who spreads deception and confusion. But when it comes to clarity, we are our own worst enemies.
We put many things in the way of our vision, things that take us from real understanding of ourselves.
Sometimes our vision is blocked by the things we expect to see. We know what our lives “should” look like, what our feelings “should” be. So we see what we expect and not what is.
Sometimes our vision is blocked by the things we want to see. We want to believe that something is true, that someone else feels the way we want them to, that we are acting out our dreams and goals, that we are hitting the mark. So we squeeze our eyeballs into the steely-eyed squint of desperation and make ourselves see those things.
We may claim someone else’s answer. If that’s the view over there, I’ll make myself see it over here. But we’re not theater patrons all watching the same movie. We’re the proverbial blind men stumbling around the elephant.
Denial may be clarity’s greatest enemy.
We convince ourselves that a toxic relationship is not so bad, because the day we allow ourselves to see how bad things are, we will have no excuse not to leave. Or we convince ourselves that the choices we make aren’t hurting people, because the day we really feel how out of line we are is the day we have to fix it.
The escape from clarity doesn’t have to operate on a grand scale. Sometimes we tell ourselves we’ve done a good enough job on a small piece of work simply to avoid the clear understanding that we need to do more. I’ve fixed this well enough. That paint job will do. Those dishes are clean enough. This food is close enough to cooked.
It’s not that a clear view is necessarily scary. We aren’t always trying to hide from the boogeyman. But whether the news we’re trying not to receive is good or bad, the problem is the same—once we have a vision, clear and true, of where we actually are, we are compelled to do something about it.
Sometimes we shrink from the path before us because we know other people will disagree and disapprove. It’s a common human response; unclear and uncertain of our own path, we will nevertheless swear that we know exactly how others should live their lives. But it’s scary to move ahead when the crowd is booing.
For all our talk about and alleged respect for clarity and its related virtues (honesty, directness, straight-shooting), we often prefer to live in a haze of uncertainty and misdirection. It’s simple. It’s easy. And it doesn’t rock the boat.
It’s another one of our simple human struggles. We want to understand, and yet we fear the burden that understanding will bring. It is as old as a person turning to God and complaining, “Really? Seriously?? Are you sure this is what you want me to do? Can you show me something else? Don’t you want to give this path to someone else?”
I believe in free will. I don’t believe in fate, exactly. But I believe that something (God, destiny, whatever you like) always puts a path before us that we are best made to follow, and no matter what our circumstances, a right path is always available. And I believe that many of our troubles come when we try not to see what we see, to convince ourselves that the path before us is really a pile of potato skins, that our path is really through those bushes over there.
One of our greatest moral obligations is to help each other find clarity. To try to keep people from really seeing is wrong. To demand that someone hide or deny what they know to be true is an enormous evil. What clarity shows us can be compelling, exciting, scary, and challenging. But the up side is huge—the knowledge that we are right where we are supposed to be.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Big Fat Liar

(News-Herald, February 4) “Do you think I actually believe you?”
It’s one of those sentences that once in a while you find yourself wishing you could say to a certain someone.
It is one of the great curses of life in our day and age—lying directly to a person’s face has become commonplace, unremarkable, something as easily done as a handshake and a smile. But calling someone a liar is still rude.
Occasionally, the lie doesn’t reveal itself until later. We smack ourselves on the forehead and think, “Well, dang! He got me!” But I think it has actually become more common to meet people whose lies are evident the moment they open their mouths.
There was a time when a lie was teamed up with deceit, as in, “Gadzooks, man, but I am tired of your lies and deceit.” But deceit is retired, cooling its heels on the bench, because we aren’t even deceived all that often. The only person who is deceived is the liar himself, who imagines that because his audience did not actually laugh in his face, his lie must have been mistaken for the truth.
I believe the world would be a better place if we told the truth. I wonder if it might help is we also called people on their baloney. After all, it’s simple politeness to let someone know that he has spinach in his teeth or his necktie on the outside of his collar. So couldn’t we arrive at a place where it would be considered polite to say, “Excuse me, but I think a big fat lie just came out of your mouth” or even “I realize you are still talking, but I thought I should tell you that I don’t believe a single word you’re saying.”
Okay, probably not.
Rudeness aside, most spewers of colorful untruths would consider that an invitation to pile more implausible bricks of detail on top of the shaky straw foundation they have already laid. Liars often believe that if they wear down your brain to a nub of sheer exhaustion, you have to believe them. If you tell him his deal is too unbelievable to be true, he’ll just sell it harder.
Also, these spinners of improbable yarns are often in positions of power, and you can’t afford to annoy them.
So when the boss is claiming that “employees are our greatest asset” or “we really value your input” or “this restructuring will allow us to better serve the needs of customers,” employees smile cheerfully and nod because employees who want to keep their jobs don’t call the manager a liar to his face. And if we’re being honest, there are times when we are grateful we don’t have to face the ugly truth. A business projection based on fantasy can be more comforting than staring disaster in the face.
Those of us deal with bureaucracy often become resigned to the currency of uncalled lies. The state calls a meeting to go over some new policy, and not a person in the entire room believes what’s being said—not even the people saying it. Why point out that we’re knee deep in fertilizer; everyone already knows this deal is not for real.
Unchallenged lies have a real cost. In Mao’s China, an initiative to turn agricultural economy to industrial was clearly ridiculous. Nobody dared speak up. Once implemented, it was clearly not working, but nobody dared speak up. On paper China had abundant surplus food; in real life, millions starved to death. Selling the big line of obvious hooey has consequences down the line.
Why does he do it? He wants to feel important and powerful. He likes the way people show him gratitude when he promises something he can’t deliver. He is so focused on himself that he’s not paying that much attention to his audience; he doesn’t see the eye rolls and the smirks. And the rush that he gets from telling his story is so great that he never really thinks about the future fallout. And when that fallout comes, he’s not there.
Stay silent or speak up; either way you pay a price. When this person shows up, he may offer you a cheap deal or a real deal or and unbelievable deal. The one thing that’s certain is that in the end, there will be a big cost and when you finally see the bill, you’ll be seeing the real deal.

From my Flickr