Sunday, February 21, 2010

The New Middle Ages

Today's London Sunday Observer includes a short article about the recent criticisms of climate scientists caught cooking the books about global warming data. The article relays complaints from scientists in other disciplines that science, in general, has come under attack because of the 'climategate' affair leading up to this year's Copenhagen Climate Summit.

As I have said, I don't know whether the earth is really warming because of human activity and carbon emissions. Frankly, I don't think it is the real issue. I believe the real issue relates to air polution and stripping the earth of it's resources at a rate that is unsustainable for future generations. But, that's not my concern with this posting.

It seems to me that the global warming debate is being set up as a debate pitting faith against reason, as much as an economic debate. When I talk to skeptics about global warming, I quickly discover that many of them come from a strong faith perspective, who believe that God has set us in dominion over Earth's resources. Since the end times are certain and nie upon us, it doesn't matter how quickly we use our resources or how filthy we make our air. That should be troublesome to anyone who plans to live to a ripe old age.

Perhaps they are right, but I begin to worry anytime someone resorts to God or the Bible to refute the latest scientific evidence. Too many people argue their case not on evidence, but on trying to convert you to their faith. Apparently, they believe that if you cast doubt on any of their beliefs, you are denigrating their entire faith. Either every jot and tittle of the Bible must be taken as true, or every jot and tittle can be called into question. That's why arguing from a perspective of faith - rather than science - is so troubling: You must either concur from a perspective of faith, or you are refuting the very existance of God. Nonsense.

New medical and scientific evidence is starting to show that some people's brains are, indeed, 'hardwired' for faith. That isn't me. I'll be the first to admit that I was not one blessed with the gift of faith. I recall a question I asked a nun in second grade: Who did Cane marry after being expelled from the Garden of Eden, since only Adam and Eve remained in the world after he killed his brother. I will never forget the nun's answer: 'We don't ask that kind of question, Richard.' That exchange - in second grade, mind you - taught me more about seeking answers through science than any single argument or discussion I have had since. I don't blame Sister Mary Gregory. I loved that woman and have never forgotten her. Over the 45 years since, I have struggled with how she should/could have answered in a way that wouldn't have turned the tide so dramatically in my faith life. The truth is, from a perspective of pure faith, she had no other answer available to her. Whether I was seven or seventy years old didn't matter. If you ask one simple question like that, you are calling the entire foundation. And therein lies the problem.

Science isn't the enemy of faith. I don't want to live in a culture that doesn't place a high value on the presence of God in our lives. But, all things considered, I would rather see our laws and society based on scientific evidence - as flawed and incomplete as the data might be. Keep people's faith out of our legislature. Too many people are insecure and feel that their personal beliefs are under attack unless everyone believe - and behave - as they do. I don't understand that level of insecurity, unless it stems from being afraid to admit that they don't really believe much of it, either.

I believe there is a God. But I don't have faith that God has much power in our lives. As a friend once said, 'God doesn't do weather.' If God can't turn the path of a tornado, what is the value of all that omnipotence we assign Him. My problem, I think, is that I have never been afraid to admit that I don't necessarily love God. Someday, I hope we meet. First, I want to give Him a good, respectful, well-deserved hug and thank you for the many blessings in my life. Immediately after, though, I want to give Him a good, respectful, equally-well-deserved punch in the nose.

Let's keep our faith in perspective. Whether I believe as you do doesn't mean I don't respect your faith. By the same token, let's admit that we live in a natural world and we leave it in the hands of scientists to explain it and help us understand it. If they don't always get the fact right straight away, we can count on other scientists to straighten things out. In the climate debate, it is already happening, less than two months following the e-mail scandal. As we pursue scientific understanding, we can all decide how God fits into the facts; rather than denying science in order to justify God.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Observations From Flat On My Back

As many of you are aware, I recently underwent foot surgery to reconstruct a left ankle that was never constructed very well in the first place. I have been enduring periodic bouts of immobility and pain for more than seven years, trying to treat the problem with orthodic inserts. I guess I always knew they wouldn't work, but when the only other option is to put yourself off your feet for twelve weeks, procrastination becomes a viable option. Finally, though, my orthopedic surgeon convinced me that the longer I postpone the inevitable, the worst the problem might become, until it could turn into a permanent disability. So, here I am, flat on my back, hoping that correcting my left foot will finally correct my golf slice.

For those people who think that a serious procedures such as this is 'elective' surgery, let me assure you, it is not. Nor was it caused by lack of exercise, poor eating habits, smoking, drinking or chasing women. Many of which I gave up while in my mid-20s. Which reminds me of an old Dean Martin joke. A man asks his doctor what he has to do to live to a ripe old age. The doctor replies, 'don't smoke, drink or chase women.' The man says, really, will that help me live to 100? The doctor replies, 'No, but it'll sure feel like it.'

Time on my back has afforded me the opportunity to catch up on reading newspapers and following foreign news reports from around the world. From my perspective, there seems to be a growing conservative movement among developed countries, particularly in the West. Much of the cohesiveness among governments is coming about because of a perceived common threat, which is generally pretty typical. Nothing brings enemies together like a common threat from the outside. And nothing has been as 'outside' to the Western world like China has for several thousand years. China is taking it on the chin (pun intended) for their unwillingness to allow their money to float on the open monetary markets. By setting their money value at an artifical price, it gives the appearance that their trade imbalance is outragious. Banks and governments around the world are saying that we will only discover what our true debt to China is after we discover what the true value of their money is. From flat on my back, that seems to make sense.

On another note, I am reading more and more negative news from around the world about the fringe elements of the U.S. party system taking control of our politics. I have always been a supporter of the two-party system because it means that our elected officials will almost always have at least 50% of the vote behind them when they enter office. Here in Minnesota, the rise of the Independence Party has given us nearly twelve years of governors with only 34% of the vote. Let's face it. A governor can't get anything done when 63% of the voting public didn't support him/her in the first place.

But on the national level, party politics means that good, middle-0f-the-road candidates are stuck trying to appease the party 'base' which is too often the wingnut fringe. From my perspective, this is more the case in the Republican party than the Democrats, but maybe not. So, an independent candidate might be able to truly reclaim those of us in the middle, without worrying about playing to the fringe during the party nominations, then running as fast as possible back to the middle for the general election.

Other thoughts and observations: The world seems lined up against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, much more so than I thought. There is a growing consensus that Americans are finally beginning to do things right, even with our mistakes. We still rely too much on long-distance weapons systems that blow up innocent people when they miss their target by half a mile.

The large offensive taking place right now is making an impact that actually shows some promise of being permanent. In the end, nobody in the local population really want to become slaves to a religious/political system that relies on carrying a rifle strapped across your back and enslaving the female population. So, let's hope the world can continue to unite.

Till later.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Take the Supreme Court Away From Presidents

Yesterday's Manila Times reported that President Gloria Arroyo is embroiled in controvery because she claims she is entitled to fill the opening to the Philippine High Court when one of the chief justices retires in mid-May. It doesn't seem like such a controversy to Americans, as nominating Justice to the Supreme Court is part of the presidents' responsibilities. But the retirement is coming so close to the Philippine national elections that opponents are accusing Arroyo of speeding up the process to put her person in the chair, in case she is not re-elected.
Imagine the hullabaloo in the United States if a Supreme Court Justice retired or died late October, just weeks before a presidential election and an unpopular or lameduck president tried ramming though a nominee for confirmation by a friendly Senate. Now imagine resulting problems if an outgoing president tried nominating a new Justice in the lameduck period between the elections and inauguration day. In America, it may not seem like such a likely scenario because we want to believe that the Supreme Court is above manipulation. (If you believe that, read about Franklin Roosevelt) But hypothetically, it could happen if an opposition party did not have the votes to filibuster and the controlling party played ball with the president.

For some time now, I have wondered whether it might be time to take the Supreme Court nominating process out of the hands of the presidency. I'm not sure how this could be done, except by a constitutional amendment, no doubt. And, no, I don't have a better idea for filling vacancies. Possibly a college of judges from each state's highest court could convene, something like electing a pope, but I digress. Finding a better solution is still a long way off. But I think it is time to open the debate about the possibilities.

It seems to me that the Supreme Court nomination process is the single largest reason this country has become irretrievably divided along party lines. Most Americans are open to debate about spending, taxes and government programs. We can each listen and appreciate what our neighbors have to say and we can even agree with their opposing views on bills before Congress.
But for about two-thirds of the electorate, scratch us and you will find lying just microns beneath the surface, a single issue that drives our vehement fears and opposition for voting for the other party. No matter how much we agree and can recognize the value of opposing positions on major issues, too many of us vote against the opposing party, moreso than we vote for our own particular candidate. Filling the Supreme Court with judges opposing our own unchangeable views on abortion and (to a lesser extent, gun rights) is unbearable to most of us.

It is possible that we have reached a point in our national politics where the opposing party dare not allow the president ANY win -- no matter how small or how early in the first term -- out of fear that it may lead to re-election. We take for granted that every president is likely to get the opportunity to fill at least one Supreme Court vacancy during a single term. But re-election means two, and possibly a third vacancy. That's too much to bear.

It occurs to me that most people live a happy life, somewhere two or three feet to the left or right of the political center. I know I do. I am typically a Democrat, and nothing embarrasses me more than what I call a knee-jerk liberal. One of my best friends is a fiscal conservative Republican, and nothing embarrasses him more than what he calls an ignorant creationist.

We want our politicians to serve near the middle of the political spectrum, too. That is, until it comes time for the old 'litmus' test for Supreme Court nominees. Suddenly, presidents from either party are forced to cater to their political base when nominaating a judge. Too often, the so-called base of both parties are so far out on the fringes that the majority of us don't want anything to do with them. But, we don't make good press, so we are tagged as undecideds or independents. Can you imagine the start of a joke, 'So, a political moderate walks into a bar...' I'm afraid we just don't sell newspapers.

So, I think it's time to start asking the question: Would you be less recalcitrant toward voting for the opposing party for president if the presidency no longer had the power of nominating candidates for Supreme Court openings? I suspect that the further you are out on the political fringe, the more you would oppose changing the current process. For the rest of us, who really only want to get along, is it really such a preposterous idea?

Next post: Why does everything return in the Spring except my golf swing?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is It Time to Look at a Single Chamber for Our National Government?

Are the Romanians onto Something? Today's Romanian Times included an article about Prime Minister Emil Boc's push to create a single chamber parliament and reducing the number of members of parliament (MP). The change will require the two major parties that control the parliament (Social Democrats and the Liberal Party) to work together to agree to the change.

For whatever problem the current health care legislation may have, one must admit that the debate in Washington has been a wonderful civics lesson for all of us. Until we started hearing terms like super majority and Joint Reconciliation Committee, most Americans probably couldn't explain how a bill becomes law. (Although everyone jokes that it's a little like making sausage.) We have all learned that individual members from both chambers of Congress must work together to draft legislation, but then quickly move the bill into the dark back rooms of the Capitol to write a version that will be palatable for passage. It's not that the original language in the draft is so unpalatable. Individual Congressmen and Senators have simply learned that their vote can buy a lot of pork for their state. No wonder lobbyists and special interests are willing to spend millions to help a Senator get elected. We don't have one hundred Senators representing the needs of the nation. Each Senator has placed his or her individual vote on the market.

We hear complaints about legislation that includes dozens and hundreds of individual pieces of pork totalling tens of billions of dollars. But how do we stop it? Polls show that Congress has an approval rating of only twenty-seven percent. But when those same respondants are asked to rate their own Congressman or Senator, the approval rating mysteriously jumps to seventy percent. In other words, my Senators' pork barrel items are legitimate and will save our state. We deserve it and we them him for it. Your two guys, however, are leading this nation down the road to perdition.

So where does it stop? Perhaps it is time to follow the lead of Romania's Prime Minister. Perhaps nothing can get accomplished as long as a newly elected Senator from Massachusetts can hold an entire nation's health care reform at bay or a Senator from sparsley-populated Nebraska can sell his vote for his state's Medicare funding ad infinitum. (To be fair, the Senator from Nebraska bowed to public pressure and pulled the amendment from the final Senate version.)

So, I'll ask the question that many people are starting to ask: What will it take to abolish the Senate? We all know that's not likely to happen. But is it possible to reform the rules to eliminate the need for a Super Majority for certain types of bills? Personally, I argue that the Super Majority is one tool to prevent the tyranny of the majority. No matter which party is in power at the moment. Americans seem to like that sort of thing. But giving the Senators with the shrillest voices, the largest lobby support or even the brassiest balls clearly isn't good governance, either. Imagine trying to run the courts that way. We would have celebrities getting away with murder.

I'll keep an eye on Romania to see how well Mr. Boc is doing. I commend him for recognizing that something's gotta give. But I suspect he won't get far.

Next post: Time to consider how we appoint nominees to the Supreme Court

Monday, February 1, 2010

We Cannot Escape What Others Think of Our Divisiveness

As I sift through newspaper headlines from around the world, it amazes me how tuned in other lands and peoples are about our American system of government. While I admit that a two-party system is easier to keep track of than the twelve parties that comprise the current Knesset in Israel or the twenty-four minor parties that fight for chairs in Turkey's parliament, I have often wondered why people on the other side of the globe should keep track at all. I can understand following which party is put in charge of America, much like we can generally name the current British Prime Minister - at least, until Tony Blair stepped down, anyway- but it surprises me how many people in other countries follow the ideology of our two major parties and the political process.

My family was in Florence, Italy, the night of the U.S. presidential election in November, 2008. We were staying at a small, family-run hotel and I had grown to know the young man running the front desk quite well during our three day stay. He and I stayed up all night together watching the election returns on Italian television. During our conversation, he was able to articulate quite clearly, albeit in broken English, what Europeans thought of George W. Bush and, by extension, the Republican party. That evening, his biggest concern wasn't whether John McCain would win, but whether the American government would work together if Obama won. It surprised me how atuned he was to the divisiveness among Americans, both in Congress and among neighbors. Five major parties currently comprise the Italian government. I had the impression that this young man had given up any hope that they would ever again unite behind one common idea for the betterment of his country.

My first encounter with world impressions of American party politics occurred in 1977, as a twenty-one year old army sergeant shipping across West Germany to a new duty station near the former East German border. I found myself in a train with a young woman who struck up a conversation about American politics. At the time, the only thing I knew about American politics was that Jimmy Carter was my new Commander-in-Chief and Walter Mondale (my Senator from Minnesota) was the new vice president.

She spoke at great length about the problems she believed the new president would create for Western Europe, because Democrats simply didn't take the Soviet threat serously enough. During the coldest snap of the Cold War, most of Western Europe supported the stronger line taken by Republicans - with the exception of the French (there is always the exception of the French). The slogan Better Red Than Dead was only popular among the most radical fringes in countries that had a buffer between themselves and the barbed wire. The people on the streets of Berlin and other cities pushed up against the Soviet bloc knew exactly what they wanted in American politics.

I voted for Jimmy Carter and didn't much give a damn whether she liked him or not. Frustrated and bursting with the testosterone of a warrior, I finally got up my nerve to ask why she thought it was OK for a German to criticize an American president. I attacked her as if I was defending my dog. (As the Carter presidency unfolded, I discovered that my dog might have done a more defensible job...but I digress.) "He's my president," I said. "You're not American. What gives you the right to criticize him from half a world away?" I was stunned into an embarrassed silence when she pointed at my Army uniform and said, "But he is not half a world away. He is right here on the train with me."

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, make no mistake, the things you stand for are condensed and understood in a way that makes sense to people like that young German woman or that young Italian man sharing a glass of wine with me. Like everything else, we are known by the company we keep. When the fringe wingnuts in either party make the news in Warsaw, Americans just six inches on either side of common ground are summed up as divisive and uncooperative. Perhaps it is only because so many multi-party parliaments around the world are exactly that - hopelessly divided and gridlocked. So, when we hear Republican and Democrat party leaders talk about catering to the base, let's stop and ask ourselves what that base really looks like. To the rest of the world, it does make a difference.

Next post: When did we become Sparta?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What the World Thinks Does Matter

I hit the jackpot trifecta the day I was born a white male in America. No single generation of people in history has ever been handed the privilege and opportunities afforded the sixty-three million caucasian American post-war baby boomers born between 1946 and 1960. Raised by parents who still believed that hard work pays off; taught by teachers who still believed that schools are for learning; and protected by a government that believed bigger is always better, we were ready to take on the world.

And take it on, we did. Free from the threat of oppression and encouraged to ride our ambitions as far over the horizons as we could envision, we were turned loose. Ill-prepared for our numbers and ill-equipped to handle the excesses we demanded, the generations of Americans before and after us were left no choice but to sqeeze aside to make room. As we demanded more and bigger, the world responded by giving us too much and too large. Our houses with four bedrooms and two and a half baths became the norm by which housing prices were established and rarified zip codes taxed extra. Our cars with sunroofs, heated leather seats and surround sound became the reason every house needed a second, third and even fourth garage stall.

I'm not saying anything new. I know that. In fact, generation X, Y and Z kids have been hammering us for years about it. They say we destroyed their future. They say we didn't leave room for anybody. They call us the single most selfish generation in history. I suppose we're guilty on counts one, two and three. Maybe they're right. Funny, though. I never thought I was doing anything more than paying my bills, going to church and raising my family.

Now, many people say it's too late. There's no turning back. We're either going to melt or we're going to freeze. Or perhaps we'll just starve to death or dehydrate from lack of clean drinking water. If my generation's excesses really are leading to our imminent downfall, I hope the world takes some little heed to the small bits of value we have added. The PC, mapping the genome, telecommunications and the minivan come to mind - well, maybe the grandfatherly Lee Iococa deserves the blame for that last one. But the point is, we have at least earned the right to pick our poison. Today is January 31st and I'm writing this first entry from my cold sunroom in Minneapolis. There are eighteen inches of snow piled against all sides of our house. I don't know if there really is global warming, I just don't think we can afford to be on the wrong side of the argument. But, if we are given the choice of our demise, I'd prefer to melt.

But this blog won't be about the depletion of America and the excesses of my generation. Or rather, it won't be about how we view ourselves, anyway. Along our way, many of us have learned that there is a whole world out there. Some of us learned by travel and discovery. Some of us learned it from the Internet and books. Too many more of us learned it when our jobs shipped overseas.

So, what does the world think of America? How does a farmer in Thailand deal with the effects of two-party politics in the U.S? What does a street vendor in Bangalor do when a Republican wins a Senate seat in Massachusetts or a Democrat is run out of office because of an extra marital affair? Believe it or not, the world takes notice. Not just government officials and policy wonks in western countries and embassies. I'm talking about the average person on the street. And I'm not just talking about large international policy or catastrophic events, either. Many people don't know that the sorry 'balloon boy' episode that played itself out over the skies of Colorado drew several column-inches in the Delhi Times, with follow up reports during the legal process and sentencing. The sport section of a London daily newspaper recently ran a story about the destruction and replacement of venerable Tiger baseball stadium in Detroit. How many Americans can identify who plays at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge? Indeed, how many Americans can even name the sport played there?

Yes, people take notice of America. More to the point, people take notice of Americans - everyday Americans like you and me. I don't know why they take notice, but they do. I'm not saying anything new, I know. But I will. This blog will be an opportunity to discuss the way people around the world view us. I know...many Americans don't care. But that's exactly what sixty-three million baby boomers said about past and future generations. We didn't care what they thought of us. We were going it alone and we succeeded on our own. The problem is, when we failed, it was always on the backs of others. So, before we make decisions about what to do next, maybe it's time we ask ourselves how will we go about it. Just as important, let's start asking ourselves how well it will play in Pretoria.

Next posting: What the world thinks of our divisiveness