Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saying the Un-sayable I

The democracy debacle in Afghanistan should cause serious politicians and diplomats the world over to develop strict criteria before staging elections in countries they would like to see emerge as democracies.

Afghanistan clearly isn't ready, nor is Iraq. They are both still involved in civil wars with massive outside intervention. This isn't the breeding ground for democratic government.

Colonialism is out of favor at the moment, but the reality is that the United States was a colony for more than 150 years before it made its move for democratic self-government. During that time, agriculture and manufacture were allowed to develop. Trading links were established, roads and bridges built, local mechanisms for justice established, and a desire for coming together as an independent state grew.

The American people weren't subjugated by the British, who in fact showed amazing tolerance to our growing restlessness. The accepted the Continental Congress, an essentially free press, the establishment of schools, religious diversity. The British government did not enslave or run the lives of American colonials. Nevertheless, the need for self-government was formed.

We had the time for the desire for democracy to gestate; for American-born thinkers and leaders to develop until that desire bubbled over and we decided to fight for a democratic state.

The same happened in India, which also had a period of about 150 years as a colony. During that time, that vast population was united, given a common language and brought under the rule of law. In time, the power of the war lords diminished and that of the thinkers, writers and leaders grew. Independence was achieved - at some cost, as always - but real respect and friendship between India and the United Kingdom remain.

Where, then, are the Afghan thinkers, radical democratic journalists and leaders? If they are there, the electorate in the US hasn't heard of them. They get no media attention. The same question goes for Iraq.

I am not suggesting that these countries should become American territories, or territories of any other nation. Rather observing that our own history could not have coped with what we are expecting of Afghanistan or Iraq, and that we, quite simply, should stop expecting it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hate Radio

Finally, there have been a number of programs and articles in the major newspapers about the corrosive effect of radio stations that are feeding prejudices at either end of the political spectrum. These hate programs are telling growing audiences what they want to hear, but they are not informing listeners or educating them. In fact, they are having a negative effect on the democratic process.

While "hate" and intolerance is what's being promoted, it's dressed up as reasonable, rational argument - but the point is, it's not. There is no balance presentation; facts are selective, distorted, and sometime absolutely false or fictitious. The encourage unquestioning agreement and not debate or discussion.

For there to be intelligent debate on any subject, there must be an agreed body of data; facts from which conclusions can be inferred. It is now too easy to read and hear stories that pose as being factual where the information has not been verified; where numbers and stories have simply been made up; and where verified data is brushed aside and unjustly discredited.

This is not what America is about. This is not how the nation has been held together for more than two centuries.

Listening to or reading those things that only reinforce what you already believe deaden the mind. Truth is discovered only through discussion, debate and thought by those who have given serious consideration to opposing views and formulated rational arguments - based on evidence that is agreed by all parties.

Parroting the radio and internet hate merchants is not going to solve the problems of the nation - or of any individual. The cul de sac of irrationality will lead to stagnation, indecision, and ultimately to the loss - by default - of the freedoms that make America.

If this happens, it will be our own fault.

While everyone is equal under the law, and equal as a unique individual, all are not equal in intelligence, ability, potential or influence. Media of hate are capable of disrupting the natural equilibrium, giving disproportionate coverage to fringe opinions. At the same time, the highly charged atmosphere discourages the more rational citizenry from participating in public politics. History has seen this before; it's time we learned from it.

As I have said before, education is the key. It informs citizens; teaches them how to judge and evaluate evidence, and promotes the skills of logical reasoning and argument.

We not only have freedom of speech here; we also have the freedom not to listen. There are those who think that Walkmen and ipods are already drowning out any real thought by a majority of the population; if so, another sizeable group is letting hate fill its minds by only listening to or reading those things it already knows and believes in.

As the character George says in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, "A man can put up with only so much without he descends a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

So what's happening in Washington?

The months during the parliamentary recess in the UK is known as the "silly season." Since there is no "real" news, bizarre and off-beat stories get more coverage that they deserve and fringe opinions can distort the perception of what's really going on.

The same has been true this summer in America where coverage of public disturbances at town meetings became the media focus rather than healthcare issues. These demonstrations have been as of nothing compared to the civil rights or anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s, yet the media has inflated them to a position of importance in themselves. In advertising terms, they've been focusing on the sizzle, not the steak.

However, in the last week some important cracks appear to be devoping in confidence in the president. Two significant Washington Post articles have been critical of Mr Obama, as have other leading journalists (including Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, "Pull the Plug on ObamaCare"). Within the Democratic party, Mr Obama's wobble on the "public option" had Nancy Pelosi and others bearing their teeth.

Is the message actually getting through to Congress? Have thed long over-due meetings with constituents actually made a difference, or is most of Congress like Niki Tsongas (5th Congressional District Massachusetts) who at the beginning of her town meeting made it pretty clear that nothing those who had elected her could tell her would make her change her mind about supporting Obamacare?

Time will tell. It may take until 2010, but the majority will be heard.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A few truths about healthcare (Part 2)

I know I've said this before but did you know there were more doctors in 11th century England (per capita) than there are in the US today?

Before getting smug about the standard of medical practice in 11th century England, ask yourself what will be thought of our medicine in AD 3009. They'll think we were pretty barbaric, too.

This lack of doctors is one of the things that pushes healthcare costs up. I am not suggesting that standards at medical schools be dropped, but merely that more people who meet them be given places. I still find it rather worrying that vetrinary school students who drop out often become doctors.

America has a wonderful schichophrenia about doctors. On the one hand, we've undeservedly put them on peditals, while on another we're appalled by the scale of malpractice, unreasonable demands (one reportedly asked for a helicopter to take him from hometo the hospital so he didn't have to wait in traffic), and often complain about our treatment.

Two generations of Marcus Welby, MD, Ben Casey, Doctor Kildare, Quincy, Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, ER, House and other TV shows that glorify the medical profession have given us this revernce for doctors. Only Scrubs injects a degree of reality into American medical care. Personally, I'd like to see a show about the men who install and repair air conditioning or keep the sewers running because they contribute more and more often to the quality of life of more people than doctors do.

The serious part

Why do we think we’d make better healthcare choices that a government agency?

Forget the individual freedom argument for a moment. Yes, you may have right to a degree of self-determination, but you’re not the only person in the world. Indeed, you’re not the only person in your family who might be affected by your cranky notion of what treatment you need. (I had an uncle who thought gin was the universal remedy.)

How competent are we to decide what care we need? (Forget that the government won’t do it any better; just answer the question).

This is an issue we should be debating with medical professionals, not politicians.

The old TV shows, and now the worldwide web has made phony experts of us all. How many of us would presume to debate aircraft maintenance procedures, or what a 777 needed done to it because it was burning a few quarts of oil more than usual?

I don’t have the answer to America’s healthcare problems and costs. However, I do know that the right discussions with the right people are not being held.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A few truths about healthcare (Part 1)

Let’s be clear: whatever we do about healthcare in the next six months will be a shambles.

This is because the time necessary to consider what the need is, what the benefits are and what the costs are have not been properly studied or debated.

The media has not been up to the task of informing the public about the above issues, nor has it reported the debate in any helpful way. It has focused on what is easy, not what is necessary. The media has spent hours discussing the demonstrations (pro and con) and, depending on the political persuasion of their sponsors, branded the different sides with unflattering epithets.

President Obama has singularly failed to explain the program to the American people, derailing his own attempt to do so by indulging in unwarranted and unhelpful comments on the Henry Louis Gates affair.

Congressmen and women have been spectacularly unwilling to engage in real discussion of the bill. Congressman Niki Tsongas, 5th Congressional District Massachusetts, for example, a the town meeting she held, made it clear that she was not prepared to change her mind, regardless of what her constituents told her.

Not about healthcare

What has become particularly corrosive about healthcare bill discussions is that they have not been about the provision of healthcare. They have been about muddied perceptions of rights and obligations; they have been about hypothetical government intervention; they have been about alleged huge costs and myriad other issues that are ill-informed on both sides, and not really about delivering basic care to people that might need it.

One of the reasons for this is the proposed bill itself that focuses more on the administration of yet another governmental bureaucracy than on health. The bill includes swingeing powers to inspect the books of private companies and all sorts of other powers that rightly demand distinct scrutiny and debate.

Congressmen have an obligation to read the bills they vote on. They should not rely on unelected assistants of unknown capabilities and experience. Too much is riding on this for it to have become such a political football.

President Obama is right about one thing: we have failed to address the healthcare issue before. The trouble is, we’re not really addressing it now.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Good Reason to Think Twice about the Healthcare Package?

“This government [of the United States] never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”
Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1848

I can hear the Conservatives cheering, but Thoreau’s world is not ours. Like it or not, the reality is that the United States is a partially socialist country. Were it not, it could not have survived.

The financial industry is still in denial, blaming everything else but itself for its massive failure. The proof can be seen in companies that even now are cutting investment, services and experiencing plunging profits – but maintaining their former dividend rates. All this “delivering the best return on shareholder investment” is but self-serving schmoozing to encourage investors, while the genuinely important consideration is the product and the customer, without which no wealth would be created. Such corporate attitudes make companies little more than contemporary snake-oil salesmen.

But what is this to do with the healthcare package?

It means that there are a number of things that the private sector can do very well (if it has the right motivations), and some things that require a larger agency to oversee. The government should not be in business itself, but the oversight of the welfare of its citizens is certainly part of its remit.

What is the difference in principle between spending billions on defense systems to protect citizens, or spending billions on medical systems to protect them from disease? It could be argued that in the first case, the state was primarily protecting itself, which it has a right to do, but what about us, personally?

Like the financial industry, the medical-industrial-complex has much to answer for. A quarter of a million deaths per year due to negligence and malpractice; lower live birth rates than countries with lower overall standards of living, and a relationship between the medical profession and institutions, the pharmaceutical industries and the insurance companies that warrants greater scrutiny and regulation. I have no doubt that even the threat of closer regulation would instantly lower costs.

One of the duties of the American citizen is not the payment of health insurance premiums. Investment in a sensible, limited, healthcare program would, in the long-term, pay great dividends, just as the GI Bill has for more than half a century, but enabling its beneficiaries to lead more productive lives.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Of Lies and Liars

I think it was Flip Wilson who quipped, "A lie is as good as the truth if you can someone to believe it."

Unfortunately, people believe that. They shouldn't have: it was a lie.

A lie is never as good as the truth. A lie is a building foundation that isn't level and sound: everything built upon it is in jeopardy, and the resulting building will only have the illusion of integrity.

A lie is not a mistake. We all say things that are untrue, but we have said them because we genuinely believe them to be true. We have not said it to deliberately mislead.

We have reached a stage in our democratic life where we are constantly and consistently lied to. Politicians and pundits will observe that if the public were told the truth, the politician would never be re-elected. Once the lie is told, it is subsequently shored up by they party or administration's bureaucracy. The fa├žade of lies only has to be good enough to last 4 or 8 years.

The short-term nature of people today means that they will readily lie to get out of a corner and worry about the consequences tomorrow.

The media has an important role to play. First, it is often the cause of lies. It presses for comments 24/7 and will often not allow politicians to have time (days, if necessary) to reflect on issues.

Secondly, the media has a role to play is actively challenging evidence and statements. The public can't do it, and if newspapers are going to continue to be worth buying, the standard of questioning is going to have to improve.

Thirdly, and linked to the second point, the media has to improve the depth of its coverage of public (political) events, and give real news more than three minutes (interrupted with at least one commercial). Current events documentaries from other countries put the US media to shame.

Fourthly, the media needs to know its audience better: the same readers/viewers/listeners to "real" news programs are going to have minimal interest in which jail Lindsay Lohan spent last night; which judge Paris Hilton is schmoozing; or what colour Britney Spears' hair is today.

Political parties (local, state and national): sharpen up your acts. Do it in private, but let your elected members know that your party will not tolerate telling lies to the electorate.

For everyone: push for prosecutions of politicians who have demonstrably lied. The penalties for perjury and Contempt of Congress are considerable and it would only take a handful of prosecutions to re-focus the minds of elected officials. Us corporations could take a strong lead in this and have the financial muscle to make a difference. So do leading law firms who could undertake the work pro-bono (and improve the general image of lawyers.)

A lie is a lie is a lie. When it is told mislead the public, it is a crime.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Making the world safe for democracy

It’s hard to believe that nearly a century later, credence is still given to the notion that one nation can deliver the conditions for democracy to another.

As Americans we have spend billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives try to do just that, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, in Africa and in the Middle East. While the idea is laudable, it is also notable for its failure to work.
If history has taught us anything – which it arguably hasn’t – it is that to be successful, the desire for self-government has to come from within. It cannot be imposed. Politicians, particularly past the moderate state of right, will argue that America can influence the conditions that foster democracy.

This is true, but only if the object country is at a certain stage.

Lawrence Kohlberg set out his stages for moral development, defining the steps that humans take in the development of their moral sense. Not all people take all the steps, but they all start at the same place, and cannot “skip” steps, but have to proceed through each one, depending on age, cognitive development, education, experience, etc., until they reach their maximum capability.

It is this notion of not skipping steps that is at the heart of our foreign policy failures. We first assume that every country a) wants to be democratic, and b) is capable at that time to become democratic, and c) that they want a democracy like ours.

American policy has no clear criteria to define at what stage a country is to becoming democratic before intervention. Only now is there a glimmer among Americans that it may, under some circumstances, to trade liberties for security, but rather than apply that when looking externally, we tend to use it for our own internal bickerings.

Where a country is on the road to democracy needs careful assessment, and any intervention by foreign powers who would help the process need to be aware that they will only be constructive if they militate towards the next stage, and not directly to the end state.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

And so, Sarah Palin

There is really only one conclusion to draw from Sarah Palin's resignation as governor of Alaska without having completed a single term: she is through with politics.

I have had great misgivings about Mrs Palin from the beginning. Her political pedigree was about as sound as Warren G. Harding's, and while she provided a welcome breath of forthrightness and media indiscipline, she never had the intellectual clout to be wholly credible as a candidate on the presidential ticket.

Her ordinariness was refreshing, but the lesson is that ordinary people can't govern the nation – or, it seems, states. For that we need exceptional people with a sense of history, a sound grounding in philosophical principles of democracy, and a real vision of what should be done.

Sarah Palin is now finished as a national candidate. Her rambling press conference offered no clear reasons for her resignation, and her dead fish metaphor about going with the current was as confused and unclear as adolescent poetry. What it wasn't was profound.

I wish her well, spending more time with her family and working like other Americans to do the right thing and hopefully prosper. She will be good for a comment in 2012 and maybe even an endorsement speech, but caution should be advised if going down that route.

The Republican Party still needs a thoughtful heavyweight like the late, great Bill Buckley, who can make the arguments if not make the running. Unfortunately, Sarah Palin could do neither.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why do Republicans have trouble with civil liberties issues? (Initial thoughts)

The American revolution was fought on philosophical arguments about natural rights (“human rights”) and civil liberties. The Constitution guarantees many of these liberties and form the common foundation for both Republican and Democratic party thinking and ideals?

How is it then, that when it comes to civil liberties issues that Republicans now almost instinctively react against the broadening of the franchise, the inclusion into liberty of great numbers of people who live within our boundaries, and sometimes even impede access to deny the liberties themselves?

The granting, or acknowledgement, of civil liberties is an essential part of a “law and order” agenda, so how has it become detached from mainstream Republican thought?

The “left” (and we really must examine what that means) has dominated civil liberties and social issues for so many generations that Republicans have forgotten that such issues were why they backed the Union in the Civil War.

One result of Republican inertia in social reform (call it “social improvement” if it makes you fee better) is that it has made the “left” more extreme in its proposals, just so that it can bring about some action. The process is like a sail boat tacking back and forth in an attempt to go straight, and, as a result, taking twice as long to cover the distance.

One objection that is often raised is the notion that “people are getting something for nothing,” and that sticks in the craw of a lot of Republicans. Unfortunately, all this demonstrates is an ignorance of American history.

There is another way of describing what is carelessly called “giving something for nothing” and the word is “investment” (ah, the die-hards just woke up again). Whether it was Federal land-grants to individuals or educational establishments, or the investment of individual towns and states in the development of the railroads, the beginning of all these enterprises was “something for nothing.”

It was more than that: it was in investment in a vision of the future. Sometimes it took a generation or more to bear fruit, sometimes it withered and died.

When we back increased enfranchisement, money for education, medicine, child-care, support of the elderly, this shouldn't just be a handout: it should be the same sort of investment in a vision of the future as was present in the land-grant days. If it is just a handout, then there is something wrong with the program, and Republicans could be in an ideal place to address that end of the problem and work towards seizing the initiative again.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why the Department of Education Should be Abolished

Was ever a government department so unloved?

President Carter signed the necessary legislation in October 1979, and the Department of Education (ED) came into being the following year. Almost immediately, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan promised to abolish it. Once in office, however, Reagan didn't have the necessary Congressional support to disestablish it.

Further promises were made by Republicans, as late as 1996, to kill the department, but President George W. Bush's “No Child Left Behind Act” was a stunning volte face that has assured the continuation of the department, possibly forever.

Several articles set out why ED should be abolished including Devvy Kidd's “Department of Education Must be Abolished” ( “Elimination Lost: What happened to abolishing the Department of Education?” by Veronique de Rugy & Marie Gryphon (

While I agree that ED should be abolished, there is only one reason in the above articles that I agree with, and that is that there is no Constitutional authority for the Federal government to have anything to do with education.

For me, that's enough.

I do not subscribe to Miss Kidd's argument that ED will churn out little communists, nor do I agree that John Dewey's influence on American education was anywhere near as sinister as she maintains. His theories weren't perfect, few theories are, and Dewey did much to engage more children in learning, and these positive effects are still felt today.

I don't agree with Miss Kidd's statement that the United States had the best education system in the world until the creation of ED, either.

The one thing that makes ranting on any subject safe is that whatever you say about the United States is true for at least ten million people. SOME of our schools are among the best in the world; SOME are among the worst. One thing you can be sure of is that there will be great debate over which is which.

More reasons?

Okay, suppose you don't believe that just because there is no Constitutional provision for Federal involvement in education is enough to abolish ED, perhaps you would go for the creeping politicalization of education.

Once the Federal politicians get involved in education, they will meddle with every aspect of it that they possibly can. Experiences of countries that have “national curricula,” like France and UK, have politicians changing what goes on in schools so much that each round of new policies stimulates a slew of resignations and early retirements.

They mess with education because it's a “hot button” with the electorate, and it's easy to show that they've changed things. It's easier to fiddle around with education than it is to do anything about the transportation system, pensions, or global warming.

Left to continue, ED will result in the same things happening here.

Supposedly ED was established to “create programs to generate funds for education and enforcement of privacy and civil rights.” These sound like the jobs of the Treasury and Justice Departments to me.

In her stimulating book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby attacks the dumbing down of expectations in America. Among other things, she suggests we all go away and have a good read and think about Ralph Waldo Emerson's “The American Scholar,” in which that sage of Concord envisaged a new, uniquely American breed of thinking and scholarship.

However, like most liberals, Miss Jacoby cannot resist the temptation to meddle in everyone's life and argues in favor of a national curriculum, and this is a very bad idea.

1. A national curriculum begins as a “base line” to set out common information that all school children should receive, no matter where they are, what their background is, or what their personal educational needs are.

2. Once having established the “base line” there is the accountant's desire to know whether all that Federal funding is working, so national tests are instituted.

3. Once the national tests are instituted, you can bet that Federal funding will go to the more successful schools.

4. The less successful schools then begin teaching so that basic minimum of prescribed knowledge is transferred at the expense of everything else.

At that point, the ED, the President, and every Congressman who ever picked up a pencil claims the success and proposes that this great experiment be repeated. Before you know it, things start to look like the most prescriptive days in France when at 10.15 a.m. on a Tuesday, every child in each year group was on the same textbook page across the country.

Like that prospect? Then support the continuation of the Department of Education.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Authority, Democracy and the Individual

I think it has been the growth of mass media and later the worldwide web that has distorted our views of authority. The rise of talk shows that feature ordinary people, while entertaining, have serious downsides. I'll save the discussion of their voyeuristic nature for another time because the most corrosive effect of the mass media and the web is that it reinforces the mistaken idea that everyone's opinion is of equal value.

Saying that my opinion is more valuable than yours on the face of it sounds heretical. However, if I am an oncologist and you're a cancer sufferer, who are you going to listen to – me, or the guy who flips your burgers – or even your lawyer, for that matter?

Professional opinions can be too often not regarded with the respect they deserve. The corollary to this is that it's often wise to get a second professional opinion.

This is an issue that is at the heart of representative democracy.

The stewardship principle is one in which we, the voters, empower those we elect to make decisions on our behalf. To make decisions. Not be a mere channel for our opinions. Stewardship is based on the assumption that our representatives have a greater understand of the whole picture, are privy to more – and more accurate – information than we are, and will act for the greater good. Of course we want our views heard and possibly represented, but part of our responsibility as citizens is to understand that we are delegating responsibilities.

Ideally, a person is IN a position of authority because he is AN authority in a certain area like law, medicine, education, science, and so on. When those who are not authorities try to over-ride the decisions of those who are, the ice begins to get very thin. This is not to say that authorities should not be accountable, or even challenged about their world pictures and decisions; what is does mean is that they probably have better reasons for believing what they do than we do.

Theory and practice

Acknowledging the above gets very sticky on issues like home education. The presumption that a parent knows better than a school system what is best for a child is a very thorny one. There are rights and responsibilities on both sides, but the presumption of competence should be with the school systems (as the result – direct or indirect – of duly elected procedures).

The use of prisons and terms of sentence are another area where authoritative opinion and public acceptance are at loggerheads. Repeated studies, both here and around the world, show that by and large, prisons do not reform offenders. However, the public's sense of safety is so great that the need to simply remove offending individuals from circulation is enough to support the practice of locking up offenders for long periods.

Please don't misunderstand me: I am NOT saying we shouldn't send offenders to prison. I am saying that given the evidence that it seldom has a beneficial affect on the prisoner is reason to look at other methods that may.

Another example: Why, when in the face of the evidence and cost advantage, are so few births carried out by midwives?

“In the United States, physicians oversee 95 percent of all births. In Europe, where infant mortality rates are superior to ours, midwives attend 75 percent of births. In fact, in every single one of the nations where infant mortality rates are lower than ours, midwives are the principal birth attendants.” [ ]

I'll look at healthcare in another blog, but as a nation, are we becoming less rational?

These observations are far from perfect, but I'm looking for foundations here. One thing is clear: a stable nation has to be build on sound principles. Without a philosophical underpinning, institutions cannot be justified or sustained.

We had the amazing good fortune to have had men who understood this as our Founding Fathers. Compared to them, those found in Congress today are but a distant echo.

Too often now our institutions are run by those who know how to run organisations, be politicians, or manage people. Very few of the men who were at the head of the major banks were actually bankers: they were lawyers, marketing people, and other “bungee managers” who were dropped in to look at the bottom line, not to run a good company.

They were IN authority, but they were not authorities, and we are paying the price.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Be Not Afraid

I will agree with the neo-cons on one thing: it is a dangerous time for America.

That's about the extent of my agreement. It's not dangerous for the reasons they say most loudly, which is that unless we spend billions on defense – and the expense of our own citizenry – then we will all be murdered in our beds. They also say that any administration that is not theirs will hasten the day when we're all speaking Chinese, Korean, Russian, or even Spanish.

Otherwise intelligent and amusing men are working very hard to keep us in a state of fear. It was easier to do this when the Soviet Union was around, but now that they're gone, we are being led to believe that the sort of threat that Al Qaeda and other Middle Eastern terrorists are making is one that will destroy our country just as the good old USSR would have done.

The sad – and dangerous – thing is that so many people are willing to believe this nonsense.

The reason this fear-mongering has been possible is that terrorists were able to attack the continental United States.

It frightened us into approving and funding two distant wars.

It frightened us into accepting the abandonment of our principles of justice and establishing a wholly spurious new category of prisoner called “enemy combatant” that somehow wasn't a solider or spy in the conventional sense.

It frightened us into spending billions on setting up a new, completely unnecessary department called “Homeland Security.” I had always thought that was what the Department of Defense was supposed to do. If they don't do that any more, why wasn't their budget cut?

Okay, I'm sorry: I know the above has elevated the blood pressures of a lot of people reading this, but the fact is that scary as Al Qaeda is, they are not in the same league as Hitler or Uncle Joe Stalin.

What Al Qaeda did on September 11 was abhorrent. It was psychologically scarring and changed the way we felt about our own safety. In no way do I deny that. Nor does it reduce my sympathy and grief felt for those who died and their families.

However, there are two questions about 9/11 that have never been fully addressed:

1.Why were so many people asleep at the switch? Why wasn't the Secretary of Defense sacked? Why wasn't the head of the FBI shown the door? Why wasn't the head of the CIA kicked out? These are the agencies that failed. Possibly the Secretary of Transportation should have gone too along with the head of the FAA.

2.Why was there never a serious public examination of why even this small group hated America so much? Was none of it our fault? Okay, there are cases when a complete stranger walks up to someone and stabs them to death or shoots them, but even those cases have some background to the perpetrator.

The neo-cons would have you believe that you're not a real American – and certainly not a real Republican – if you want answers to those questions.

And that's what there is to be afraid of.

How not to be afraid

1.Be rational. Ask to see evidence and question the source of the evidence. As soon as people start blustering or making clever remarks about those who ask for evidence, or cast apersions on sound rational argument, you should smell a rat big time.

2.Demand higher standards from public officials. Make them deliver sensible results for a reasonable cost within a reasonable time. If they don't, find out why. Ask to speak to their supervisors, and their supervisors. Don't give up, it's your money they're spending.

Hint: politicians will reply to your letters but deliberately not answer the question you asked. Don't be satisfied. Write again. Write to the newspaper and tell them that so-and-so fails to answer questions.

3.Keep informed. Don't just read the magazines and newspapers that agree with you. Listen to news from sources you don't trust. Listen to the radio on the internet, not just from American stations but from Canada, the UK, Radio Moscow – anyone who is saying something about America even if it's a lie – because that is what the world is thinking about us. Understanding that is a big step towards setting things right.

4.Push for higher standards in education. The dumbing down is real and it is the result of those who should be in authority caving in to public pressure and fashion. Those people should be in their jobs because they know more about education than you do, otherwise what is the point of insisting they go to college and get advanced degrees?

5.Be honest with yourself when listening to new ideas. Kant said that you should only read the books that make you angry, the rest you could have written yourself. Be critical, but rationally critical.

6.Try to develop an historical perspective and see what is happening, here and abroad in some sort of context. (For some, the last Bush administration made a lot more sense if you thought of Roman emperors rather than previous American presidents).

7.Accept that there is no God-given right for America to survive; decide why it should, and then decide how you are going to help ensure that it does.

8.Don't buy the false dichotomy about being with us or against us. You're more complex than that, and so are the issues. Most of the issues today are so tough that the phrase “If you think there's a simple answer, then you don't understand the question” is true 99.5% of the time.

9.Don't let the threat of terrorists stop you from doing anything. (Okay, wandering through parts of Baghdad singing “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” may not be a great idea, but don't let it stop you doing sensible things.

10. Stop criticizing America, the President, the Republicans, the Democrats, Gays, Feminists, Muslims, Creationists and other groups and do something about what you don't like.

FDR was right, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. At present, it's clouding our judgement and impairing our decision-making.

Memorial Day

I was going through what family history I know earlier this year, and realized that a succession of fairly direct ancestors and relatives I knew had fought in many of this countries wars, or served in the military.

This goes back to an ancestor who came to the new world in the 1730s and fought in the United Indian Wars. His son fought in the Revolutionary War.

I haven't yet found anyone who was involved in the War of 1812, but two great grandfathers were at Gettysburg (unknown to each other). Both were on the Union side. A great great uncle was in the Navy in the 1870s an apparently distinguished himself, though only an ordinary “landsman.”

An uncle was wounded in World War I; both grandparents were in World War II and my father was a Vietnam era veteran, though he spent much of his time in Europe.

Not bad for an ordinary family.

I think this shows two things:

First, the debt we owe to those whose lives were on the line, willingly or unwillingly. Their service in some tiny way helped the cause of America.

Secondly, it shows the gratitude we should show for those who are now on the line for us. Forget politics. Forget the rights and wrongs for a minute. Forget the “my country right or wrong” rhetoric. Tens of thousands of ordinary men and women are doing things for us right now so that we can sleep safely.

We can – and should – argue the rights and wrongs of specific conflicts and policies in the appropriate arena, but today we should remember those men and women and acknowledge the hardships they may be facing.

God bless you all and thank you.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What is a progressive Republican?

Before beginning, I want to repeat what I said before, these are ideas to be debated, not final or complete principles. Yet, there should be enough here that others find the basis of a vision to support.

A Progressive Republican

  • believes in the defense of the nation, but will not betray Constitutional principles out of fear

  • believes in justice and the rule of law

  • acknowledges that there is a difference between freedom and unbridled self-interest

  • believes that with rights come responsibilities

  • believes in equality of opportunity, but not in the undue interference of the state in private lives

  • believes that all public servants, elected, appointed and hired, are ultimately accountable to the people

  • believes that free enterprise is the driving force of America's wealth, strength and vitality, but also that the involvement of the Federal government may be desirable and necessary in certain areas

  • believes in traditional family values while acknowledging liberty and justice for all

  • believes in rule by the majority and also in the rights of minorities

  • believes that education is a matter for individual states apart from ensuring that individual rights are protected and funding fairly administered

  • recognises the difference between a handout and supporting the less able and helping them to prosper.

Future posts will explore the above and add other issues.

What is a "progressive Republican"?

It used not to be regarded as an outrageous, even trecherous, concept. The "glory days" of the GOP were not when it let big business and special interests run unchecked, but when it combined basic American tradions with pragmatism about current issues while maintaining a greater vision that ordinary people could identify with.

I don't believe there was an extended period when this happened, but golden moments throughout American history when the sunlight broke through.

The next post will set out some ideas about what a progressive Republican might believe. The propositions are offered as a starting point for debate, not final principles handed down from on high. After all, who am I to do that?

At present, there is no intellectual foundation for Republicanism. The neo-cons continue to brow-beat everyone into believing that if you're not for them, you're against them. This is an anti-intellectual position and can only lead to continual defeat of Republican candidates if this image of our party continues to prevail.

We must not be afraid to criticize those who are setting themselves up as unelected party leaders, and make them understand that we don't have to buy their whole package to be "real" Republicans or "real" Americans.