Friday, October 31, 2008

Trick or Treat?

Ah yes, Halloween. A time to dress up as something you are not, and if below the age of 13, ring people's doorbells and ask for candy. If you are 13 to say 18, roam around your neighborhood hurling eggs, toilet paper, and shaving cream. If above 18, get dressed up in some sort of costume, go to a party or some parties, and get drunk and have odd pictures taken.

I've never been into it really.

Perhaps it was growing up in the middle of nowhere in Vermont, where the nearest neighbor was about a mile-and-a-half away, and the next one three miles past that. Maybe it was never having close friends. Maybe it was plenty of things, but the spooks and hobgoblins and scary stories have never done anything for me.

I'm not easily scared.

My semi-paranoid nature causes me to make constant assessments of my environment, trying to anticipate what may come next. Halloween is like telegraphing the punch to my brain; you know people are going to try and scare you or walk up to you half-soused and barf on you, so you anticipate and avoid.

Even the supposed "scary" movies they play this time of year do nothing for me. The only movie that ever actually generated nightmares for me was The Exorcist, and that's because I saw it when I was younger. Now I find it hilarious. Freddy Kruger? Bah! Jason? Please! Chucky? OK, now you're reaching. Even Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man have had their teeth taken out by bad modern remakes -- you can never go wrong with the classics!

So you'll forgive me if I feel blasé about Halloween.

For the things in life that are truly scary, knock traditional Halloween frights into a cocked hat:

  • The idea that a tortured, 72-year-old Vietnam vet with an entitlement complex could theoretically become President

  • That if the above became true, a moose-shooting hockey mom from Alaska with a healthy case of cognitive dissonance and the ability to lie to the public without batting an eye would be one heart attack away from being President of the United States

  • That for both of the above to become true, the citizens of America would have to be moronic enough, or possibly bigoted enough, to not vote for a black man

  • That if they did not vote for the black man, it would be because deep in our hearts, we have not thrown off the mentality of the slave holder

  • That the plunging economy and rapidly accumulating debt built up by the past 8 years of mismanagement would continue for another 4 to 8 years

  • That people cannot tolerate the idea of change for the better

Now that's scary!

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Real America

A lot has been made during this Presidential election about the "real" America, as if the adjective could somehow be applied to an artificial construct. For that's what any country is -- a collection of points on the surface of the Earth which encompass an artificially determined area. Countries have been created to be de facto containers of "our people," divided along whatever lines people have seen fit to draw, both topologically and socially.

While you find a great deal of homogeneity in many countries, there are pockets of every nation where ethnic and cultural variations abound. Italy and Germany are crazy-quilts of ethnic types, borne of hundreds of years of conquest and commerce. The Basque people in Spain maintain a fierce independence from the Spanish. The African continent is littered with countries built up of tribes which share only lines on the map, but not language or custom.

On the surface anyway, the United States tries to portray itself as the great "melting pot," where all of the rest of humanity comes to better itself. We pride ourselves on the great diversity of ethnicity that permeates each and every nook and cranny of our land.

The flip side of this American diversity, however, is fractionation, as various groups form collectives within the grand scheme of the "United" States of America. Given the diversity of race, it is interesting to note that not all of this fractionation is racial; much of it is social or religious. Clusters of the like-minded spring up in all sorts of places and exert what influence they have locally. It is only in an election year, and especially true in a Presidential one, that these groups, normally separated by geography, merge to form blocks that candidates are forced to pander to. Fiscal conservatives, Evangelicals, gun owners, immigrants, abortion rights advocates, pro-Life advocates, businessmen -- suddenly the individual voter is subservient to the block, a cog in a large political machine that expects the candidates to pay them some respect and listen to their points of view.

It is sometimes interesting to note that this phenomenon is nothing new, nor is it unknown. Social psychology tells us that people will tend to cluster with others who share their primary social attributes. It also tells us that in groups, peer forces will often overwhelm normal individual judgment, creating that phenomenon known as "the mob mentality." And in groups, when there is a decision to be made, only the strongest can break the spell of inaction and indecision.

So if you look out at America, the "real" America, you see 300 million individuals, clustering together for mutual comfort and trying to go about lives that give them the most gain and the most satisfaction. An within that giant pool, there are the eddies and currents of social, economic, and racial conformity which occasionally cause powerful waves to form. Sometimes those waves disperse their energy to good effect, such as the outpouring of support for New York after 9/11 and for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Often though, these waves stir up the surface, and come into contact with other waves, and there becomes a titanic struggle as each tries to swamp the other.

The current election is a lot like that. On the one hand, you have John McCain, candidate of the establishment, the "old guard," trying to take his rightful place at the head of a country that needs strong leadership and a firm hand. On the other, Barack Obama, candidate of change, looking to brush past the establishment, seize the reins of power, and chart a new course. And feeding them are the various groups attuned to their individual messages, rank swelling rank, building up their candidate and propelling him though the swells.

The roiling, churning sea that is this election is being driven by a "perfect storm" of economic collapse, social upheaval, war, and jingoism. It is a clash of culture more than an election, for each side seems to represent a different aspect of the American landscape: McCain, the representative of the tail end of the generations that fought the great world wars, Obama representing the slow birth of a pluralistic planetary culture which rides technology into the future.

And so, the heart and soul of the "real" America is on the line. When one side wins, there will be a collective groan from the other, for it will mark disappointment and perhaps desperation and depression. A McCain victory would mean that all the promise of the future, the chance to set right the Ship of State, will have been squandered and will lead inevitably to anxiety as the policies of the last 8 years find new life. An Obama victory will frighten the older, conservative crowd, as suddenly they will see their caricature of "real America" slowly dissolve away in the rain, to be replaced by a freer and fairer world, a world without limits and without boundaries. A world filled with ideas that will shock them and test their faith.

And in the end, no matter who wins, life will go on. For neither man winning will cause the sudden and inexorable collapse of American society, only begin a new cycle of political bargaining and punditry. The true test will be down the road, when we look back and ask ourselves if we did the right thing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

No "Average" Joe

Dear Senator McCain,

Allow me to introduce myself: I'm Not Joe Average.

I am a guy who has spent his whole life working very hard at every job he has had. I have tried to live a frugal life. I have not spent my time squandering money on things, but on the necessities of life like cars, a home, food, and clothes. And even then I do everything I can to save money. And yet...

Other than a house and a car, I have nothing substantive. I have no retirement savings. Every dime I have earned has had to go to paying someone for something I needed or was honor-bound to pay for (property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, etc.). I have no money set aside for college for my children. There's no rainy day fund -- my savings account is empty, sucked dry every time a new unforeseen expense comes up. And there are a lot of those...

You see, I work in IT, and well, those pesky companies I end up working for inevitably figure out that it's cheaper for someone in India to do my job at one-third the price, so they end up laying me off. So, inevitably I am trying to live on unemployment insurance, while the money I would have put into Social Security and Medicare and health insurance is going overseas, where it does no one in this country any good.

So when you say you'd like to help Joe "The Plumber" get his plumbing business, I can't help but wonder: when are you going to help me? I figure Joe, being a plumber, is making good money. If he is making good money, and he's smart about his credit, he should be able to go to a bank for a loan to help him buy that business.

Oh wait.

Silly me.

The banks don't want to lend anyone any money! Seems they've fallen on hard times, something about a housing bubble. I seem to have read it in the papers.

So I guess Joe is out of luck. Unless you would care to write him a check?

Didn't think so.

Because after him would come me, and then after me would come someone else, and after them another person, and so on. Pretty soon, you'd be... well... poor.

Then again, you might lend Joe the money, but not the rest of us. We're not living the American Dream, right? Because we're not running out and trying to buy businesses or large-screen plasma TVs, or because we think it's possible that a woman should get paid equal to men for the same work, or we think that not getting pregnant is a far better idea than having abortions or giving kids up for adoption, or possibly because we know that drilling for more oil is a fool's bargain that will have little impact on our dependence on foreign oil.

Perhaps we're not real Americans.

So what is it, Senator? What are we to you? Demographic groups to pander to? To frighten? To lie to in the vain hope that we won't notice? What?

I'll tell you what we are.

We are Americans tired of promises that lead to the same-old Washington messes. We are tired of watching the Federal government squander our money on wars and weapons while it leaves its own citizens to live in squalor and poverty in ever-increasing numbers. We are tired of a political machine which greases the wheels of the "big shots" on Wall Street to the point of handing them a big check written out of our checkbooks, while doing precious little to fix what caused the problem in the first place. We are tired of hearing how wonderful everything will be when you cut taxes on the rich and all that money will trickle down into our pockets. We are tired of people trying to foist their morality on us and expecting us to like it. We're tired of pandering and glad-handing.

And we're angry.

Oh yes we are, Senator, but not in the way you think. We are angry at you, you and your friends in the political establishment who have spent years peddling influence and paying lip service to the true problems in this country. Our anger is incandescent at the thought of losing our homes and our savings and our retirement funds because the people on Wall Street could not contain their greed. Our anger is a subtle, seething rage at how you stand there in all your glory, making your opponent seem as if he is untrustworthy, when it is you and your allies who have fabricated, prevaricated, and obfuscated to score points with a citizenry that, below the surface, is frightened at the thought of a black man becoming their President.

You make us angry. You represent some of the worst facets of our society. You stand for unreason, for faith before logic, for the rich getting richer on the backs of those who have already given all they have and all they can. You act as if you are owed something for all you have given this country. If that is so, then what are we owed? When do we get what's coming to us? When does out torture stop? Torture in the form of not knowing from one day to the next whether we will have a job, a home, or even our personal freedoms. When does that end?

I'll tell you when. Mark it down on your calendar: November 4th.

That is the day we, Americans all, cast our ballots, and when the vast majority of us, reasoning, honest, hard-working citizens, cast our votes against you and for someone who is actually interested in us and our welfare. The day that we sweep away the old, the stale, and let in a breath of fresh air, redolent with new ideas and hope. A day long overdue.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Debate Prep 3: Return of the Democrats

Tonight (10/15) is the final Presidential Debate for the 2008 election. The format is kind of a "sit down at the lunch table" talk, with Obama and McCain seated side-by-side across from Bob Schieffer. It is considered by many to be the last gasp for McCain; only a good showing here will keep his campaign alive.

The tenor of the McCain campaign has rubbed many people the wrong way, Democrat and Republican. Failing to address racist comments at rallies in a timely fashion, trying to use William Ayers and ACORN as bogeymen to show how unfit Obama is to be President, and Sarah Palin's apparent inability to read a report that condemns here ethical lapses as "no evidence of wrongdoing" -- these are the kinds of things that make it increasingly clear that the McCain camp has lost its way. As their poll numbers trend downward further, the attacks ramp up, become less substantive but more vicious. If you cannot win on merit, win through fear. Karl Rove must be proud.

So what to expect?

From Obama, more of the same. Through the debates and the slew of negative ads, he has maintained his cool demeanor, showing no signs of allowing the needles and arrows of his foes to penetrate. He stands his ground with utter confidence in his message and his destiny. He will deflect each blow as it comes, pressing back with the surety of a fighter who knows how to allow his opponent to expend his energy fruitlessly, all the while unaware of being backed into a corner.

From McCain, more of the same rhetoric, but with a plethora of new "facts" to throw into the fight. He will stick to his guns on Iraq and the economy, and attempt to paint his opponent as out of touch, as someone who cannot be trusted because he consorts with "bad people." McCain will lunge, and lunge, striking with everything he has in his arsenal because he can leave nothing back. This will be his last opportunity and he will push and press. Ultimately, it will leave him vulnerable, because in his haste to bring down Obama, he will reveal parts of his true self which will paint a bleak picture of a McCain presidency.

Ultimately, I doubt that even if McCain brings his "A-game" he will enough strength to wrestle Obama down over any particular topic. He will resort to the low arts, hurling innuendo like hand grenades in the hope it will do enough damage to keep Obama in striking distance. But if he does this, it will have the opposite effect, highlighting the weaknesses in his current character that have been all too evident of late.

John McCain knows in his heart that this is the last battle. If he fails now, there will be no Presidency in his future. He has reached the zenith of his political career and when he loses the election, the plunge to the nadir will be swift and frightening. That thought will no doubt weigh heavily on his mind as the debate begins.

Ode to Autumn

Nature's green cloak
Rusts and yellows
And falls down
To the cool earth
As she heaves a sigh
And prepares for slumber

Monday, October 13, 2008

Who is the real John McCain?

Fair question.

Is he the Vietnam hero who survived 5 years at the Hanoi Hilton with the help of some friends?

He used to be.

Is he the man who came home from Vietnam, found out his wife had been disfigured in a horrible accident, and proceeded to cheat on her?

Most assuredly.

Is he the man who married a rich and beautiful woman to show he had not lost his naval aviator chops?

No doubt.

Is he the Senator who got mixed up with Charles Keating and ended up selling out his integrity and got away with it only because the Senate could not dredge up enough evidence to convict him of anything?

You be the judge.

Is he the man who voted to deregulate Wall Street to the point it was able to pull the wool over investors' eyes and profit off of bad debt?

Pretty much.

Is he the man who called his wife a particularly derogatory term in public?

Sure is.

Is he the "maverick" who voted with George Bush 90% of the time?

The evidence is in the Congressional records.

Is he the man who acted at two debates like his opponent was not even in the room?


Is he the man who stood idly by as people made derogatory comments about his opponent at rallies, comments which smacked of racism?

Yes, but not anymore apparently.

Is he the candidate who is watching his poll numbers continue to slip and realizing that the end of the road for his chance is near?

Count on it.

Who is the real John McCain? The public may never really know.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Never Get Involved in a Land War in America

We have passed Presidential Debate 2: The Old Man Strikes Back, and it is becoming increasingly clear that John McCain is losing ground. Now, I am normally suspicious of what a poll actually says the numbers are (sample sizes are way too small and demographics are iffy at best), but I do watch the trends in the numbers, because on the whole, they are fairly accurate predictors. And the polls show Obama's numbers trending up and McCain's numbers trending down.

You can point to a lot of reasons for this. The sudden explosion of the economy was like the asteroid that pushed the dinosaurs to their doom. The bloom is off Sarah Palin's rose, as it became clear from the Vice Presidential debate that Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson could not have done much to make her look bad that she wasn't fully capable of all by herself. The attack ads that McCain's camp have launched have started to become darker and dirtier. McCain's treatment of Obama before, during, and after the debates was the subject of much scrutiny. Even some Republican pundits are beginning to see the warning signs.

This is not good if you are John McCain.

So now he presses the attack. He takes on Obama's character, rails about how we don't know who Obama is or what he thinks, that he's evasive when asked about his record, is lying and hopes that by repeating it often enough people will believe it.

In psychoanalysis, this is called projection -- projecting your own negative qualities onto others rather than identifying them with yourself.

This is also not good if you're John McCain.

Perhaps the most telling thing to happen of late is the appearance at McCain/Palin rallies of people who are decidedly racist. Not just that, but that when incidents occur at these rallies, they elicit no condemnation from the candidate.

It becomes increasingly clear that John McCain is trying to sell his political soul to get that seat in the Oval Office. He is no longer concerned with outward appearances -- he has beat the war drum of his service, his captivity, his maverick nature to the point of drowning out reason and sanity. He is a man acting as if he is owed a term as President of the United States, rather than having to earn it like everyone else has. He is now pandering to the lowest common denominator of the electorate, the seedy underbelly of politics -- those who fear a black man in the White House. By bringing up Obama's tenuous link to William Ayers, and thus by association linking Obama to terrorism, McCain has lost his last shred of decency.

This election is slowly turning into a new Civil War, a war between the status quo of power and privilege (McCain) and a new birth of freedom and democracy (Obama). Unlike the Civil War, where the battle lines were drawn starkly on the map, this battle for the heart and soul of the nation plays out on a constantly shifting field, where attack and counterattack, thrust and parry, underhanded deed and glorious battle are represented in a constant, whirling milieu. The colors shift and dance across the map, and in the end, in this amorphous atmosphere of desperation and hope, one side will triumph. But at what cost.

John McCain has begun the long slow plunge -- here's hoping he does not take the decency of the United States down with him.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Debate Prep

For all of you out there who feel like tonight (10/02) will be Sarah Palin's comeuppance as Republican Vice Presidential candidate, I have bad news for you: don't count on it. I know, I know, the interviews do not lie -- she is pretty clueless about things most of us have at least a passing knowledge of and is counting on her 10th grade debate skills to get her through. And it will be live -- no rocks to hide behind or Straight Talk Express to hop into and lock the door. Which is why she is being as well prepared as the McCain camp can make her.

And the preparation will probably pay off, if they concentrated not on what she would say but how she would say it. I think they might have programmed her to keep the answers simple and straight-forward and to not flounce around too much verbally if caught off-guard. There's literally no way they could pump enough foreign policy information into her to allow her to take on Joe Biden on even close to equal footing.

No, I see this as a less-is-more kind of debate, because as many of us know, Joe Biden has a gaffe problem of his own. I don't see him going at her tooth-and-nail the whole debate, but letting her stand there and talk, then get in and make his own cogent remarks. I think he will every so often needle her with something he knows she can't possibly pull out of her hairdo, but over all will not want to come off as being too aggressive. Biden stands to lose as much from this debate as Palin.

And in the end, I very much doubt, unless there is a major flub, that this debate will change much. Vice Presidential debates seldom do. They're pretty much having this debate to give the main contenders a breather and to generate new ad material. If Palin does poorly, it will be blamed on sunspots, the "liberal media," Vladimir Putin, anything but Palin herself. If she does well, she will do no more than match Biden, and as such won't look bad, but won't look overly impressive either, given that Joe won't be going after her full bore. I honestly think Joe Biden may just coast through this, to avoid being seen as attacking Palin "because she's a woman."

So look for it to be pretty boring, with occasional moments that will either make you scratch your head or laugh out loud. In the end, there will be no massive bump for either Obama or McCain, only a breather between the Wall Street meltdown and their next debate.