Thursday, December 31, 2009

Upon The Passing Of The Hour

Tonight, as the clock strikes midnight in every time zone across the face of the Earth, a similar ritual will take place, as humanity celebrates the turning of the last page on the calendar, marking one more rotation of the Earth around the Sun. Another year passes, and takes with it our memories, our hopes, our fears, and all that was. It is as if we mentally wipe a slate clean, and convince ourselves that all that came before may be dispensed with, that a new year marks new things.

It is hubris to believe that you can simply dispose of the past. Each human being carries their past with them in their brain as patterns of neurons, that have recorded everything that person has experienced, storing the knowledge away for future use. Each of us also carries the legacy of humanity in our DNA, transporting through millions of years the actuality and the potential that is Homo sapiens.

So if we wipe the slate clean, it is only the surface that is cleansed, for all that lies beneath comes with us. As it should be.

It is not enough that we resolve to change who and what we are at the turning of the hour; we must make the effort to make actual change, in ourselves, and the world we see around us. For each orbit of the Earth has seen the same human frailties and failings carried on, has seen death, destruction, and disease travel forward along with hope, courage, and scientific advancement. What does not seem to change with the millennia is human behavior. Humanity still grasps at wealth, power, glory, and territory, even as it leaves many of its members to struggle and suffer in mediocrity, poverty, and want.

The future is unwritten -- it is we, as a species, that will write what is to come. If we are to resolve anything this evening, let it be that we will no longer tolerate the inequities of the past, that we will forge new relationships, and find solutions to common problems. Let us resolve to turn a corner, to bring humanity fully into its Third Millennium, with the goal of laying aside the past, and creating a newer, brighter future. It is time that we take the lessons of the past, and apply them to the progress we make. It is time, to learn from our mistakes and work not to repeat them.

And so, I wish you peace, long life, and ask you, in the coming year, to reevaluate you life and your goals, and to be mindful of the direction of humanity. Together, we can accomplish anything.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Brave New Humanity

I was given pause to consider what has changed in the way humanity views the world, between the Middle Ages and now. You can consider that on the grand scale, the world is significantly altered, such that a denizen of the Middle Ages would find it inconceivable, though not totally incomprehensible, that we reached every corner of the Earth and have sent men and machines to the far-flung environs of space.

So, we have progressed, in technology, in population, in resources, in capacity and capability. Perhaps the one area where it can honestly be said that little progress has been made is in thought and rationale. A person of the Middle Ages would be filled with wide-eyed wonder at our accomplishments, but would feel right at home with many expressed attitudes, though our behavior overall would be quite different. While there is sexual freedom, more racial equality, and a greater ability for the commoner to enter the free market, the taboos of centuries past still linger, and we cannot seem to free ourselves of them completely.

For it is clear, that a great proportion of humanity still clings to the dogmas of the past. We are surrounded by the blare of information and the bright lights of technology, and we see all these things, which were no doubt anathema as little as five centuries ago, brought forth into the light of day. Learning and knowledge have repainted our picture of the universe we inhabit, moving us from its center, off to a corner of but one galaxy in a multitude. Science has granted us kinship to our animal brethren, made us important players in the functioning of the Earth as a system, and shown that despite all outward differences, we are one species. We have been given new life, and the possibility of expanding ourselves beyond our cradle, into the galactic milieu.

As such, you would think that all this has transformed us as thinking beings, but, in fact, the pace of external transformation is not matched by our internal transformation. While water may flow, rock may crumble, and even iron yield to flame, human belief is resistant to change to a degree unmatched in the natural world. The eternal struggle between the enrichment of knowledge and the inner turmoil brought about by change is ongoing, fueled by emotion. Those unafraid of knowledge and change embrace differences; those fearful of further erosion of their model of the world cling to personal beliefs, as the stranded sailor to a life raft. Those who live on the edge, charge forward; those who live amidst the quiet, stay back.

So, as humanity moves forward, it drags along the dead weight of the past, an inertia that retards progress and restricts freedom. The ghostly past Marley comes to our modern Scrooge, and warns us that the fetters he wears due to his previous ignorance and self-absorption are also secured to us, though we do not see them, and that we forge new links each and every day. We are in danger of being denied our heavenly rest, because we could not open our eyes to the world around us, and see it for what it is. We deny the evidence of our eyes and ears and hearts, in the constant grasping and shuffling toward grabbing a piece of the world for ourselves, something which, ultimately, death will take from us.

It cannot be that we simply wipe the slates clean, for indoctrination in the new is precisely the same as indoctrination in the old; as the songs says: "Meet the new boss... same as the old boss." We cannot mandate thought or belief -- it is impossible to counteract a definitely opposed will, and our own strictures forbid it. For an American, freedom is just that: freedom to believe what you want to believe, even if the prevailing wisdom is that your belief is based on premises that no longer hold. Each entitled to his or her opinion, no matter what it may be.

Yet, even as that great ideal is important, if we are to be a truly free and peaceful people, there is an overarching principle that must be factored in: we are all in this together. No matter our differences, no matter what we believe, no matter what ideas our principles are based on, our individuality is assured only as long as our humanity is reinforced. No distances, no resources, no beliefs, no conflicts, no perceptions, alter the fact that humanity lives as one on this Earth, and it is, for now, our only home. We may have our differences, but we are all in the same boat.

So, at some point, those who may believe a certain thing and believe it so fervently that to go against it is considered heresy, must learn to yield to greater considerations. This is by no means easy, nor assured, for fanaticism in belief is seldom counteracted by any degree of reason. Still, the general welfare of all, the greater good, will and must take precedence. This does not mean the denigration or destruction of individual belief, as much as it means any group's beliefs cannot be allowed to override what is in the best interests of all, especially those who do not believe as they do. It should be possible to live as individuals amongst a greater group: the human race.

We can hope that movement toward a united and peaceful humanity continues, and that the chains that tie us to a moribund past are broken. As in every century, though, there are those who will resist the change, to their detriment. Those who chose not to ride the tide of progress, are left to founder in its wake. We note their passing with sadness, for it did not have to be so, but humanity's destiny cannot be denied forever. We strive to build, to grow, to learn, to understand, and thus, survive. The human story is still preamble; eventually, it will be written across the stars.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

We Get It

Yeah, we get it.

You hate homosexuals.

Yes… you. The narrow-minded, Bible-verse-flinging, ignorant, spiteful, fear-mongering segment of the population that views the idea of people loving people of the same sex so abhorrent, that if you could get away with it, you’d no doubt tie them to stakes and set them ablaze.

You, who are so uncomfortable with the idea of people being different, that you would do anything in your power to deny them the peace of mind and solace you believe is rightfully yours, and yours alone. You, the ultra-conservative, who cannot grasp that the planet has turned a corner into a new millennium, and that the old ways can no longer support human society. We need new ways of thinking, new ideas, not the old, moldy words of people drenched in fear for their life and fear of those who were not of their tribe.

You will not grow. You will not change. You will not open your heart or your mind to possibilities. You live in the staid, sedentary, somnolent backwater of modern society, afraid that “they” will ruin your way of life, take away your freedom, and somehow desecrate all you hold dear.

I have news for you: you have done far more to desecrate your way of life than anyone. You wield your beliefs as a sword, hacking away at anything than offends your “morality.” You claim some type of divine superiority through your faith, a faith based on hypocrisy and ignorance of the words of your own savior. Anything you do not understand or subscribe to is an “abomination,” to be given as little regard as the dust.

You will stand there, in your apocalyptically-driven glory, and claim that you have “nothing against gays,” even as you seek to fund those who would keep them down, keep them in line, and defend your way-of-life by equating them with all the ills of the world.

You hate them.

Not hate in the manner of holocaust, but a low-grade, simmering hate, never spoken, never voiced, never revealed overtly, but clearly written in action and deed. You paper the hate over with a veneer of morality and community service, but this cannot keep your true feelings from leaking out beneath the facade. You will stand and deny human beings rights, because it offends you to think that they could be happy, too. You spout rhetoric about “family values,” even as you cheat on spouses. You would “defend” marriage, even as you trample upon it with your mistresses. You would claim that marriage is a solemn connection between a man and a woman, when it is more the connection between a man and a slave.

So yes, once more you have managed to deny gays the right to marry. New York, New Jersey, Maine, California… you may sit there, smug and self-righteous, proud of yourselves, but know this: your day is coming. Those of us who value freedom, individuality, and prefer tolerance to ignorance will gather our force of will, and we will drive back the demons. We will supplant you. We will cast the pure light of humanity on your piteous and baleful forms, and drive you back under the rocks from whence you crawled.

There will be liberty and justice, for all.


NOTE: After writing this, I came to find this wonderful video of NY Senator Diane Savino addressing the State Senate before voting on the gay marriage act that was defeated by a 38-22 vote. It says with poignancy and dignity, what I wrote with righteous anger and frustration.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Un-holy War

Some facts:

- Pope Benedict is not President of the United States

- The First Amendment has not been repealed

- America, while predominantly Christian, is not 100% Christian (roughly 84%)

Now, while this country was founded primarily by members of Christian sects, who emigrated to America to escape persecution or start new lives, and also given that many of the Founding Fathers were members of Christian faiths, men who were strong believers in God, but also in the freedom to worship the god (or gods) you saw fit, it is interesting to note that one enjoinder that is pivotal to the formation of this nation as a free nation, is the one regarding the government's ability to establish a national religion. So important was this idea, that the government should not be able to establish, recognize, or support a single religion, that it was made a part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The founders were well aware that the contentious differences between religions as a whole, and divisions of those religions in particular, would be anathema. For representative government to work, and for all sides to receive fair and equal representation, various aspects of a person's life would have to be kept separate from governance. The general welfare of all Americans was more important than the petty squabbles brought about by differing belief systems. There would be enough squabbling created by the simple act of trying to get so many different States to agree on anything.

We must also remember that there were many among the founders who were Freemasons, and one of their main precepts was that it did not matter which god you believed in; as long as you believed in "god," then it was possible to have discussions about other things without needing to invoke any particular religion's deity to make a point. Mind you, this way of thinking still denies the atheists their due, but at the time, it was more enlightened thinking than "worship my god or else!"

Personal belief had to be separated from governance, if the expounded principles found in the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") were to be realized. The citizens of the United States had to be taken as individuals, each in his or her own way, and treated equally, irrespective of religion -- though race, gender, and the like were sadly lacking in equal treatment.

Flash forward more than 200 years, and we find the Roman Catholic Church, or at least some high priests of it in the United States, attempting to dictate social policies affecting all Americans, because they conflict with Catholic values. They have gone so far, as to use Holy Communion as a political tool, making it clear that any Catholic public servant who takes positions contrary to the Catholic Church should not receive Communion.

Now, my days of calling myself a Catholic are long over, mainly due to such improper manifestations of power as these. While there is nothing wrong with the Catholic belief system, per se, there is a great deal wrong with those who consider themselves "keepers of the faith." It is quite clear that the church is becoming quite reactionary, to the point of overstepping its bounds in America by attempting to meddle in the affairs of the nation. This bombast and hypocrisy has made its way throughout Christianity, to the point of poisoning my view of organized religion. I am a great believer in spirituality and its role in making people better, by encouraging us to look towards the needs of our fellow humans and giving them the same care and concern we would expect them to give us.

What I am not a great believer in, is the idea that there is one "true" religion, whose precepts are manifestly better than any others, and whose system is to be placed ahead of all other consideration. I have nothing against those who worship in any particular belief system, as long as they understand that they are free to live by those codes if they choose, but they cannot impose those same codes on me. On Earth, humanity and fellowship must reign, and religious belief must be a function of the individual; it is against the founding ideals and laws of this nation, that any one religion may hold sway over public policy, for the laws of humanity must apply equally and without rancor, if there is to be true freedom and justice.

It is safe to say that any public official has a duty to all citizens first, above and beyond personal considerations. Anyone who cannot see this is not fit for public service. The constituency any public representative is representing, stands to be a complex mixture of race, culture, gender, and belief. To claim that personal preference trumps the will of the citizenry, is to claim that an individual's personal belief is somehow "superior" to the judgment of those he or she represents. This is hubris of the highest order, for no matter what an individuals capabilities or beliefs, when elected to an office by the citizenry, it is the task of the elected to not only carry out what is in their best interests, but what is in everyone's best interests. This will no doubt cause consternation among the citizens, as it will be impossible to please everyone, but in the end, to maintain the principles of freedom and democracy, it will be necessary to make hard decisions which go against popular sentiment, because they stand to give everyone greater latitude and liberty.

So, it must be said, strongly and forcefully, that the ministrations of Catholic bishops are better spent on their flocks, than in the political arena. While it is admirable that they would look to "protect" people, the basis for their efforts is a flawed understanding of what individual liberty and freedom are. Any American is free to worship as they choose, and accept or reject the precepts of any religion or belief system as they see fit. In the end, the only way to protect such freedom is in the way outlined by the founders, in the strictest terms, by compelling the government to respect the rights of individuals to their beliefs, and conversely, for the government to protect Americans from the undue imposition of any other group's beliefs. Only by maintaining such balance, and by keeping politics and religion separate, can we progress toward a more harmonious future.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leap Of Faith

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the most remarkable books to ever come out in the many fields of science: On the Origin of Species. It is interesting to note that the book, that outlined the process of natural selection which is the driving force behind evolution, was not as feared in the mid-19th Century as it is today. In fact, Charles Darwin sent a copy of the book to Reverend Charles Kingsley, a prominent member of the Church of England, who, upon reviewing the work, wrote back to Darwin: "It's just as noble a conception of God to think that he created animals and plants that then evolved, that were capable of self-development, as it is to think that God has to constantly create new forms and fill in the gaps that he's left in his own creation."

The fact is, that if you look down the corridors of history, and specifically those of science, you see that faith was often the starting point for explorations of the workings of the universe. In every faith, everywhere, we see thinkers, looking around at the world, and up to the heavens, wondering how it was all put together, why it all works the way it does. The natural curiosity of philosophers, scientists, and even clergy, throughout the centuries, led to the expansion of human knowledge and the growth of human society. Concepts first outlined in one place and time worked their way forward to inspire others. So it was that the Egyptians inspired the Greeks, who inspired the Romans, and so on, taking concepts of the universe and its workings and passing them down the line to be refined.

One has to realize that this process, of identifying nature and attempting to explain its workings in more rational terms, is not some new phenomenon of the later centuries of Mankind, but a continuous thread that runs through the tapestry of human society. Science, far from denigrating faith or impugning religion, sought to open up the curtains, to see how the creation of the universe was accomplished. It was not enough for some to believe in a god or gods, but that if these deities were responsible for everything, including the appearance of Mankind, then surely their fingerprints were still indelibly etched on the world. To their minds, the perfection of creation was something to not just be mindful of, but to be understood, that they might know their creator better.

Their names are writ large throughout history: Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and yes, even Einstein, who remarked: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." At some point, their personal beliefs drove them to think about, and discover, more about the universe. They believed that if the creation were the work of a god or gods, then it should be comprehensible and logical.

Thus it is inconceivable, given the breadth of human knowledge and the world we now live in, that at the beginning of Third Millennium of Humanity (as per the Christian doctrine), we should see religion attack science for its attempts to pervert or destroy faith. Specifically, we see Christian faiths decrying such things as the teaching of evolution in schools, because it somehow "attacks" their faith. The "intelligent design" movement is just the latest "theory" to provide a direct response to this "threat," attempting to show that there is a "scientific basis" for creationism. This goes far beyond a refutation of evolution, for traces of it can be found in the firestorm of protest over stem cell research, abortion, and the rights of homosexuals. It is all part of a toxic mix, designed to cloud judgment and pander to fear. It is not too far removed from the conditions that ultimately led to the Salem Witch Trials; faith in Christ can lead to salvation, peace, and a better regard for your fellow humans, but it can also lead to suspicion, self-righteousness, and fear-mongering.

It is a measure of the fear of some Christian groups -- and the Roman Catholic Church, from which they sprung -- that such vehement opposition is raised. The mantra heard most often is that science, and government, seek to destroy faith, through the imposition of secular ideals at the expense of that faith. Evolution offends them, contradicts what they know from The Bible, and that somehow diminishes them. Allowing a woman to decide if she will keep a child or not contravenes the lessons of their belief, that it is the command of God to "be fruitful and multiply," that to terminate a pregnancy somehow extinguishes a soul. Allowing homosexuals to marry will erode the meaning of what it is to be married, because homosexuality is an "abomination" in the eyes of the Lord and for them to marry means their faith is somehow stained, and they will not be found worthy.

What the Christian faithful do not truly understand, is that science is not interested in matters of individual faith, per se. Science is interested in teasing apart what makes the universe, and the great variety of things in it, work. It seeks to uncover the watchmaker's fingerprints, to understand the architecture and peruse the blueprints of the creation. Far from annihilating faith, science expands the avenues of it, by showing us the glories of the universe. Who can look at a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and not be moved by how the glowing stars and their home galaxies stretch out into space, filling it with delicate structures, like cathedrals of light? Who cannot marvel at how the sum total of the universe is built of the tiniest number and type of particles, particles too small to see, yet leading to the profusion of things we experience? And how can you not be astounded by a feat of biological engineering, to build such a simple mechanism as evolution, to take a handful of living things, and fill a world?

Blind faith is just that: blind. To take only the words of a book as gospel, to avert your gaze from the true marvels of creation, to wallow in a comfortable stupor as the world changes around you, to never question or show curiosity, is to travel a lonely road to salvation. If you believe in God, and you believe Mankind was made in his image, then is it so far a leap to believe that the brains we were given, the curiosity we were imbued with, and the world we were placed upon are not at once his gifts, but also his puzzle and the means to solve it? Perhaps salvation does not rely on a closed system of faith, but an open system of wonder and belief in a greater world to be explored.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It Must Be Nice

It must be nice to have the moral high ground, even as you exhort people to "stop the baby-killers."

It must be nice to remind people of the word of Jesus, even as you seek to shun the poor and the destitute.

It must be nice to speak of Jesus' love, even as you seek to bar homosexuals from the rights and privileges they deserve.

It must be nice to complain about the "tyranny of the government," when no one is knocking on your door or taking one single gun from you.

It must be nice to shout about "taxation without representation," when you elect the same representatives again and again, who spend your tax money with little regard for your feelings.

It must be nice to cast aspersions on and make claims of malfeasance about someone, while hiding behind the First Amendment.

It must be nice to appreciate your freedom, even as you are giving it away.

It must be nice to speak of the principles of fairness and justice in a free society, even as you seek to deprive that society's enemies of the same fairness and justice.

It must be nice to claim you are following the "will of the people," even as you are subverting that will to your own ends.

It must be nice to talk about family values, even as you are cheating on your wife.

It must be nice to speak of how you are being persecuted by the "liberal" media, even as you use that media to peddle your book.

It must be nice to share the secrets of becoming wealthy, even as you are bilking others out of their wealth to make yours.

It must be nice to disparage the President of the United States, after spending years telling people they should not do so.

It must be nice to claim you represent the "true faith," even when your version bears little resemblance to the faith you claim to follow.

It must be nice to send others to die as martyrs, while you sit in your home with your family and live another day.

It must be nice to complain about the burden of your taxes, even as you make billions off the sweat of other people's brows.

It must be nice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fear Factor

It has come to pass, that since the horrible events of September 11th, 2001, we have lived in fear so long, that it has overwhelmed our better judgment. It does not help that some in Congress have become so reflexively afraid of anything that smacks of progress or change, that their impulse is to run to their constituents and the American public and scream at the top of their lungs about how the country is being sold into slavery, how freedoms are being trampled, and how it is all the fault of liberals.

Consider the vitriol that has been used in the health care debate, from "death panels," to "baby killing." It is far easier, apparently, to pander to the fears of the many, than to look out for their best interests. The common good appears to come with its own bogeyman attached, the idea that dark forces will leap out of the bushes, force women to have abortions on the Federal dime, that the old and infirm will be strapped to tables and murdered wholesale, and that this will all be done while jack-booted thugs go door-to-door, relieving the good citizens of our country of every dime they have.

Consider the idea, that bringing those who are responsible for the current "war on terror," -- the masterminds behind 9/11, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and the attacks on our embassies overseas -- into this country, to face the same kind of justice that we hold so dear as citizens of America, constitutes some kind of horrible security breach, which will bring about a fresh reign of terror, as they mastermind their escape from confinement, and exhort their minions to pour into the streets and murder us in an orgy of mindless, heathen slaughter.

Consider how a whole class of people, homosexuals, is being marginalized and minimized, turned from decent, hard-working, tax-paying citizens, into purveyors of bestiality, roaming the streets in gangs, looking to poison the minds of our youth, turning them gay with mere words, corrupting future generations, leaving us vulnerable to their machinations. Were gays to be given the right to marry, straight couples would suddenly feel their hearts seize, their minds go blurry, their bonds of love being torn asunder, overwhelmed by the sheer force of homosexuality, obliterating modern human civilization and leading to anarchy and chaos.

When we look back into the human historical past, we are often amused by the quaint, superstitious, and frankly ridiculous beliefs that people held, laughing to ourselves at how silly they were to believe the things they did. We believe ourselves immune to the hysteria, the debauchery, the destruction of the past, because we are somehow more enlightened, more learned, more sophisticated. We would not be so easily duped, to be held down by rich lords, looking to use our labors to further their power, or cowed by the forces of nature, which we know to be natural, not the result of gods on high. We want to believe that we are better than that.

We're not.

We carry the baggage of human history with us, to this day, in the superstitions we continue to believe, in the irrational fear we feel at certain thoughts, and the beliefs we cling to, even when it is clear they are no longer valid or relevant. Our history continues to be littered with the detritus and debris of human stupidity and ignorance, for while we have grown smarter, we have not grown wiser. Knowledge does not beget wisdom, it is only one component thereof. How else do we explain the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, "Reverend" Jim Jones, Bernie Madoff, or Timothy McVeigh? Were we wiser, would we have not seen the potential for destruction in them, and stopped them before they could harm humanity?

It is, perhaps, our fate to be hoodwinked, as long as we refuse to apply the precepts of reason and logic, as long as we are willing to surrender our individuality to the mob and abdicate our own need for clear, concise thought. Appeals to our emotions will garner greater energies than appeals to reason, for our feelings carry life within us, while reason feels cold and sterile. Yet, sadly, it is the exact opposite, for reason carries with it the continuation of life and the ability to live it free of fear and loathing, while emotions simply drain away our impulses toward goodness and decency, making us mindless automata, ripe for programming by those who would command us to our own destruction.

If we are to grow, as a people and as a culture, we must deny the comfort of charming words and their attendant feelings. We must not give in to simple impulses, but must ask what the ramifications of our actions are, or will be. We must tread carefully, deliberately, moving forward in measured increments, always keeping the greater good in our foremost thoughts. We cannot act in isolation, but must act in concert, if we are to slough off abject fear and replace it with steadfast resolution. We must not reject fear out of hand, for fear is the genesis of courage, but we must learn to examine it, dissect it, and take from it only what is necessary to move forward. To wallow in fear is to be sucked down into an abyss, from which humankind will be unable to extricate itself.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Heat Is On

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of a recent poll of 1500 American adults, that says that only 57% of them think that the Earth is getting warmer, a 20-point dip from three years ago. Now, given there is a population 300 million-plus in this country, a sample size of 1500 does not imbue me with confidence that this is a realistic portrayal of American attitudes, even if they have solid statistical evidence that the sample is valid. That is not the issue, anyway.

If we cut past the hyperbole, the hype, and the political nitpicking, we can get to the heart of the matter: the Earth's average temperature is rising. I highlight "average," because the Earth is not a uniform body, the atmosphere is not a uniform covering (the composition and thickness varying from place to place), and the planet is not a closed system. If we go back as far as we have solid records for local temperatures, chart them, and compare the values over time, we see local variations, rises and falls, and overall, like the stock market, a continuous rise.

The planet is slowly getting warmer.

The mechanism by which this occurs has been known since the 1950's. Solar radiation bathes the Earth. Some is reflected back into space, some of it is absorbed by the upper layers of the atmosphere, and much of it penetrates to reach the surface, to be absorbed by land and water. That absorbed energy, mainly in the form of heat, is radiated back into the atmosphere, to worm its way back to space. Much of it escapes from the top of the atmosphere, but some of it is reabsorbed by certain molecules found there, which are greedy for heat energy. These molecules, the most well-known being carbon dioxide, trap the heat and re-radiate it back toward the surface of hold it in the atmosphere. In any event, the result is simple: a certain amount of these molecules holds/maintains a certain amount of heat; fewer molecules, less heat retained -- more molecules, more heat retained.

The amount of these greedy, heat-loving molecules is altered by global processes that we have an incomplete but general understanding of. For carbon dioxide, it is absorbed by plant life and converted into oxygen, or sinks into the deep ocean, or becomes locked up in rocks through many processes. It can also be released, through volcanism, large scale fires, deforestation, and of course, the burning of fossil fuels. The Earth's system for regulating the ecosphere is well-established, being as old as the planet itself. It evolved over millions of years, has survived global catastrophes and alterations, and operates on its own, subject only to the changes in the amounts of molecules in the atmosphere, the amount of solar radiation being intercepted, the amount of vegetation covering the surface, the albedo (shininess) of the surface, and myriad smaller-scale factors, which we are only now beginning to understand. While not a closed system, it is a system nonetheless, operating automatically, behind the scenes, as we go about our daily lives.

Therein lies the crux of the problem, for the system that is our ecosphere, a system governed by the large-scale effects of its constituents and the small-scale effects of the laws of physics and chemistry, is going about its business, day and night, unconcerned with our existence. Natural forces continue to shape and mold the world we live on, oblivious to our wants, desires, or preconceptions.

Belief is not required.

So the question should really be, are the actions of humanity having a measurable effect on the changes we are seeing in the global climate? And the answer must be: unequivocally. How much of an effect, and how quickly that effect is being felt, should be the object of the debate. The constant, fractious, and puerile arguments over "global warming" suffice only to waste time and effort that could be better spent determining a baseline for global climate change that would allow us to measure the significance of our impact, beyond the use of an average. We must study the Earth's systems in finer detail, to try and determine how the shifts in various factors shape the responses of the systems to our machinations. We must also find ways to mitigate our effects on the planet, for even if we determine that we are causing potentially catastrophic harm, it is better to have started to make attempts to reduce our impact on the ecosphere, than to wait until we are at the edge of the precipice.

Whatever choices we make from this moment on, the Earth will continue spinning through the cold void, sweeping through the tendrils of solar particles and waves of energy emitted by the Sun, and its systems will keep on acting and reacting to the changes that occur, a minuet of chemistry and physics. Should we fail to heed our own warnings, should we delay and deny, should we choose to put less than our best efforts into working with our home world -- as opposed to merely existing upon it, rapacious in our desire for resources -- then the Earth will not even shrug. It will simply continue on, carrying on its surface the burnt, collapsed, and abandoned remains of the only intelligent civilization that, so far as we know, ever existed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ignorance Is Bliss

It must be nice to live in a world where suppressing knowledge and inventing facts are rules, rather than exceptions. How much better it is to go through life ignorant of those things which might upset you or lead you astray. How grand and satisfying it is, conjuring up fallacious tidbits to reinforce your delusional world view. Why surrender to reality, when you can live a life of happiness and joy, ensconced in your cocoon of prevarications and obfuscations?

For some odd reason, a great number of people have either come up bereft of logic and reason, or decided that facts should not get in the way of a good story. In either case, we are seeing, through the media, a wave of tripe that that threatens to engulf our country in a miasma of ignorance. And the media are complicit in allowing it to spread, by eliminating self-censorship for the reward of cheap and easy ratings.

How else can we explain the "birthers" cabal, or the anti-health-care-reform ranters, or the "tea party" crowd, for example? Here we have movements that either a) have incoherent and poorly parsed messages or b) have clear messages based on fabrications, innuendo, and outright lies. In either case, the record is easily set straight, the fabrications are easily debunked, and the messages invalidated by their unreasonableness and illogical frameworks. And yet they persist -- why?

We have methods of communication that span the globe at the speed of light, and ways of conveying this information that allow for individuals to dial in to ideas and data that match their view of the world. Satellite communication, 24-hours news, the Internet -- the scions of the digital revolution -- have made it possible for any idea, no matter how realistic, no matter how logical, no matter how factual, to be disseminated to everywhere on Earth, to be discovered, absorbed, and regurgitated by those who covet such knowledge. It only takes one person to put out a scrap of information, that within hours could be considered gospel.

There is no filter on information, anymore. No peer review. No editor. No oversight. Where those things exist, they are easily bypassed. All one needs is an Internet connection, and a place to deposit the information -- personal web site, social networking site, comment section of any news/entertainment site, etc. -- and through the auspices of "information" providers, web spiders, and re-writers, a "fact" is borne to every machine that can hold it, passed on to every computer that requests it, and lodged on data storage devices everywhere. Even if removed from it source, the information can never truly be erased.

Can it be any wonder, then, that so much unsubstantiated, illogical, and specious knowledge continues to plague us? Were it tucked away in a musty book, on a dusty shelf, in some dingy hall, it might never see the light of day. If the purveyors of such nonsense were still forced to go through others to have their ideas see the light of day, then many of these things would have remained in relative obscurity. They would be nothing more than fables, stories to scare children with, the intellectual equivalent of things that "go bump in the night."

Those of us aligned with the forces of reason, sanity, and logic will continue to rail against the descent into ignorance, but it becomes harder and harder to be heard over the din created by the maunderers and sycophants. The only bright spot in the current maelstrom is that the tools that allow such rubbish to exist and thrive, may ultimately be turned against it. Given time, patience, and the will, we may yet dispel the gray clouds of ignorance, and pull Mankind into brighter light and clearer air.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I Give You, The Do-Nothing President

It is safe to say that nothing of recent note has engendered a firestorm quite like the announcement that President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

You would think, gauging by some reactions, that the announcement disrupted the space-time continuum in a way that the ancient calendar of the Maya had not foreseen.

Much has been said about it at this point. Some people, myself included, applaud the move. Many others are confused, or fail to see how he "earned" it. Some are downright hostile, foaming at the mouth over how the prize has "become a joke," or "definitely went to the wrong guy," or bemoaning the fact that "there are so many more deserving people," or even claiming it is "a slap in the face to President Bush." And at the mention of the fact that the nominations for the award closed February 1st, a scant 11 days after he took office, there was a downright furor stirred up.

Time to take a depth breath, America. Now, let it out.

Much of the hysteria is due to the general atmosphere of anger, hypocrisy, and ill-will generated by the President's election. Nine months in and people still can't get over it. The amount of sheer animus toward a President has not been at this level since President Lincoln's first election, when a large portion of the country seceded, rather than be "ruled over" by someone they saw as an "abolitionist." Then, as now, it was a matter of perception, because Lincoln was nowhere near the abolitionist cause, and was desperate to do anything that would keep the Union together, short of abolishing slavery. Worse, his Presidency got off to a very slow start, as one Union general after another could not bring him the victories he needed to vindicate his efforts to fight a war to make the country whole again. He was pilloried and vilified, not only in the Confederate States of America, but the Union as well, even by members of his own cabinet.

So, President Obama can take comfort in the fact that he is not alone. Mind you, his job is a bit more difficult, fighting two wars overseas, while trying to survive a sluggish economy and create real reform at home. Perhaps even Lincoln would blanch at trying to take on so many things at once. It makes a civil war seem easy by comparison.

I will posit that bestowing the prize on President Obama was unexpected and a curious decision. Certainly, the Nobel committee was under no obligation to take the nomination to heart, but consider it they did, and it should be noted that while the nomination came fairly early in the President's term, the actual decision came some months later. In that time, President Obama had the opportunity to show that he was serious about fostering peace, through actions which sought to reverse the course of American foreign policy, by trying to open up dialogs with potential "enemies," shoring up relationships with friendly nations, restoring diplomacy as a centerpiece of foreign relations, and attempting to strengthen the place of the United States in the United Nations. By making Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State and letting her set the tone, he made it clear that a new breeze would be blowing, and that we would still be tough, but we would try to work with nations, not against them, unless their actions called for it.

Perhaps these do not seem to be accomplishments in concrete terms. Perhaps there is still much to do. Regardless, President Obama is no more a miracle worker than any previous holder of the office. To hold him against a standard that says everything he touches must be "fixed" for him to be successful, or to claim he has "done nothing" is sheer hyperbole. That he has not continued the ruinous policies of the previous administration, has upset the applecart of pomposity and grandiosity that was our foreign policy, and has made attempts to tackle, head-on, as many of the nation's intractable societal problems as he can, speaks volumes about the man.

President Obama has charted a new course, in search of a better America. Not unlike Columbus, who had a vision and pursued it -- despite ill winds, ill fortune, and a crew on the edge of mutiny -- our President is moving us forward, toward clearer air and brighter light. The Nobel Peace Prize should be thought of as a sign that we are on the right course.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Blood On Our Hands

His name was Derrion Albert. He was 16, by all accounts a bright young man, academically gifted, who was determined to make something of himself some day.

I say "was," because he was subject to a beating, caught on video tape, by other children his age, not far from his school in Chicago, Illinois, a beating which took his life. He was hit repeatedly, kicked repeatedly, and even assaulted by someone with a board. He died later, of his injuries.

The reports are sketchy, as they so often are in such cases. Some think it gang-related. Some say it was a fight between two "factions" at his school, and he was merely an innocent bystander. All agree, that his murder was inexplicable, senseless, and brutal.

Why did this happen? Why must our children be made to suffer?

It would be easy to classify this as "one of those things," or something you see "in a bad part of town," or perhaps a "sign of the times." Have we in America become so lackadaisical, so disconnected from our communities, so inured to violence, that we are simply willing to fob this off as "somebody else's problem?" Would it be easier for us, perhaps, to simply point the finger at the parents, at the school, at the city of Chicago, call them to task for their inadequacies, and go about our business?

Yes it would.

Should we?


Ultimately, it is the responsibility of everyone who believes in a free and just America. It is always easier to claim that there is "nothing we can do" and chalk it up to a confluence of events over which we have no control. But as one drop of water does not make a rainstorm, the storm itself does not exist without the contribution of every drop it gathers. While the death of a child in a street in Chicago would seem to have nothing to do with you or I, it has everything to do with what we are allowing our nation to become.

We are becoming a nation of bystanders.

It has been long known by those in the field of psychology as they "bystander effect," wherein, when an event takes place and is witnessed by a large group, only those who are strongly self-motivated will attempt to intervene, the larger portion of the group wanting to do something, but fervently hoping or mistakenly assuming, that someone else will take action. It extends far beyond the moment, for even after the event, people are reluctant to "get involved," which is why so many crimes go unsolved, because those with vital information will not come forward of their own volition, sure that someone else will, or that there bit of information is unimportant.

Derrion Albert's beating was an example of the effect on the small scale, but also symptomatic of the effect on the large, social scale. Whatever the impetus for the event, be it gangs, cliques, or some random incident, the fact remains that such situations develop because we do not engage our neighborhood, our town, our city, our state, our country, on any more than a cursory level. We hand responsibility over to others, heedless of the cost, and then are shocked when events such as this happen. There is always a hew-and-cry, heads roll, and for a while, things are quiet, even as the underlying causes and problems remain, and the pressure builds up again. We stand by, assume someone else will take care of things, and go about our business.

There has been a lot written of late of "angry" Americans are. I posit that Americans are angry for all the wrong reasons. We have reached a point where we have ceded control of our country to special interests, to big money, to those who seek to profit from misery, death, and despair. We act as if there is nothing we can do, as if those in faraway places run the show, and we are but helpless pawns, toys for their amusement. We complain, we bemoan, and yet we do not exercise the power that is ours, to force change and to bring our nation to heel.

It is in the hands of every one of us to make sure that our nation is better than it was the day before. It is we who hold the reins, determining who does and does not speak for us. It is we who can demand more of our public officials, who dictate to them how we wish things to be run. No matter how we try, we cannot shrug off that responsibility, for it is imbued in us, by our Constitution and by our birthright. If we wish to have peace, happiness, and tranquility, it is up to us to ensure that these things are brought about, not simply for us, but for everyone.

There was no reason this boy had to die. There is certainly no reason he and other children like him have to die in such a despicable fashion. If we, as Americans, believe in the ideals set for in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, then it is our responsibility, to see that every American need not fear for their life, that each child is safe, warm, fed, and clothed, that no person should go without when there is plenty to be had. If we leave it up to the handful of people we elect, there is no guarantee that our country will be run as befits a nation that fought so hard for independence. If we listen to the voices that say there is no profit in helping others, we stain the memory of those who fought to give us freedom with the blood of innocents. If we do not demand accountability, reason, and above all, compassion, then we have no right to complain as our liberties are trampled. The rights and liberties we take for granted extend to all Americans, not just a privileged few.

Let the death of this young man not be in vain. Let it be a rallying cry. Let Americans be angry about the senseless death and unnecessary poverty that afflicts this nation, and then let us all, together, do something about it. No American can be, or should be, expendable.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What It Is, Ain't Exactly Clear

Sitting on the beach over the weekend, basking in a late Summer sun, a cool breeze slipping over the sand, surf pounding the shore, I was struck by the thought of how the sand I was digging my toes into, the sand that kept getting on our beach blanket, the sand my daughter was forming into castles, started its life as hard, seemingly unyielding stone, a million or so years ago. The pounding surf, its roar at times physical as well as auditory, even at its weakest, could be seen pushing large stones onto the beach. The sand, the stones... they had been part of mountain ranges or continental shelves at one time, huge expanses of upthrust rock, exposed to the elemental forces of nature, the friction of surging water, scouring wind, burning heat, and bitter cold. The titanic forces which shaped the Earth, gave it the substance and form we know today, were now replaced by the slow and inexorable forces of erosion and decay. No thing, even a thing built by the universe itself, can withstand time and tide.

We triumphantly declare that we have built our homes, our cities, our governments, on "solid ground." We see only the surface, not unlike the metaphoric iceberg. We act as if the ground will never move, never change, will stand for eternity. Nature shows us otherwise. It shows us the true face of the universe: change. Sir Isaac Newton enumerated and outlined the ways of the universe centuries ago, and even though Einstein supplanted some of Newton's knowledge on the scale of the very small, on the scale of the very large, the Laws of Thermodynamics still apply. In essence, they tell us that things will never, truly, stay the same, that everything will run down in the end. Order becomes chaos.

It is, no doubt, why evolution works via the auspices of natural selection, and why those organisms that can adapt to change most readily, tend to survive. Those who adapt, spread. They grow in number, consuming resources until the resources dwindle and natural forces take over, causing the population to decrease, and forcing the organisms to adapt to the new set of environmental circumstances.

What sets Mankind apart from most organisms on Earth is not just our supreme adaptability, but our constant attempts to impose order on our environment. Cities, roads, laws -- these are all products of our desire to make things better, more efficient, safer, more productive. Rather than be subject to the vagaries of natural forces, we seek to mitigate them, block them, or make them work for us rather than against us. We have taken natural selection to a new level, a level of self-selection and self-invention, straining against the limitations imposed on us. We seek to carve order out of the chaos.

While it has created much success, and allowed us to become masters of our globe, perhaps it has also filled us with hubris, believing we are somehow beyond the grip of the mundane world. Every so often, via hurricane, or earthquake, or tsunami, nature reminds us, that it is not so simple.

So, too, is it with our social order. For if we strive to adapt the world to our needs, we also seek to adapt society to our wishes. Some people, some groups, feel that things must be just so. Those groups and people are opposed by others, who wish things to be some other way. Each person, each group, sees the world clearly, through their eyes, tinted by their beliefs, and has the blueprint for success for the whole human race. No matter how well-meaning, inevitably there is conflict, for not everyone believes the same thing, or if they do, they do not necessarily believe it in the same way. Compared to the mountains, human will is even more unyielding.

It is amazing that human society has managed to survive for millennia, given it's propensity for turning on itself. No matter what order we may create, we eventually give in to pandering, proselytizing, fear, and our animal passions, and tear down that which so much effort created. Empires rise and fall. Nations come, and go. Communities live, and die. The cycle goes on, for what is torn down is invariably plowed under, built over, and new things rise from the ashes of the old. Change marches on.

America is currently seeing a swelling of outrage, the like of which has not been evident since the isolationist movement, which intended to keep us out of WWII, or the civil rights movement of the 60's. The ruckus and uproar over changes in government policy, the attempt to reform and build up universal health care, to add new life to the Supreme Court, and handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differently, leads some to believe that their country is somehow being pulled out from under them, a conjurers trick meant to strip them of their liberties and destroy the "American way of life."

This is nothing new.

While some have intimated -- with some degree of truth -- that much of the acrimony is stirred by sour grapes, inherent racism, and partisan politics, the fact is, the over-arching cause is simple: change. Inevitably there is change in America, and Americans don't like it. Presidents come and go. Policies that are upheld by one administration are reversed by another. Things that were considered political suicide gain new life. The ebb and flow of life in America remains the same -- only the details change, as years pass. If many in this country are said to be angry, one only has to look through the past 200 years and more of our history to realize that at every stage, people were angry. Voices have always risen in opposition to change, whether it was women's suffrage, slavery, Indian affairs, the taxes on tea, the prohibition of liquor, the price of gasoline, entry into any one of many wars... the list goes on. When Americans feel that the direction of the country is wrong, they stand up, and they say so.

Whatever you may think of the motivations, the messages, and the actions of those who protest, it is the very fact that they can protest that means this country is doing just fine. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Uncivil War, Redux

It can no longer be considered a fluke -- Representative Joe Wilson has some company.

To be fair, Joe Wilson was never really alone, though his ascension to the highest peak of incivility was well documented. Beyond shouting down and verbally lambasting the President of the United States, the only possibility to eclipse such a moment of indiscretion would be insulting an emissary from an intergalactic species, during a first contact situation.

Subsequent to this, there have been two equally high profile incidents of incivility, which lead me to question the status of the human species as predominant because of our highly-developed cerebral cortex. Now, for sheer power and gall, neither of these incidents compare to Representative Wilson's faux pas, but they do highlight the fact that, at least for the 'American' branch of the human family tree, social civility has gone the way of the dinosaurs:

- Serena William, tennis professional, champion, fashion designer, and media darling, reacted in a most unbecoming manner to a line judge at the U.S. Open, when called for a "foot fault." Her demeanor was less than professional, when she suggested she would a tracheotomy of the judge with her racket (or something to that effect). She has subsequently apologized.

- Kanye West, musician, author, music producer, decided to interrupt the acceptance speech of Taylor Swift during the MTV Video Music Awards (which is odd, since I was unaware MTV played music videos anymore), to lament Beyoncé Knowles not winning that particular award. An apology appeared on his blog after the event.

Apparently, live television has the effect of incapacitating the sensibilities of those susceptible to its effects. Some radiation or magnetism seems to seep into the brains of the unknowing, causing them to blurt out their innermost thoughts. It is the television equivalent of road rage.

Perhaps, in the end, that's what it is: visceral, unfocused, pent up rage. Bottled up in a vessel of human construction, under the right amount of pressure, the vessel cracks and spews forth invective, vitriol, and unmitigated emotion. We cannot know how long it stewed or how much of this foul concoction brewed there, deep in the dark recesses of the brain, before containment could no longer be maintained. We only see the end result: Krakatoa writ on the human scale.

It is easy to pick on these public figures, for they had nowhere to hide, trapped in the baleful glare of the camera eye. With no one or no thing to hide behind, they are now the easy fodder for those who see them as pariahs, or as poor role models, or embarrassing reminders of times past. And yet, who amongst us has not done the same? I mentioned road rage previously, and perhaps these are only the most visible signs that our society has lost its capacity for dealing with the stress of our everyday lives, devolving into a maelstrom of irrational behavior. We all do it, whether it be a full-throated roar or muttering under our breath, in front of associates, or family, or even children.

If we are wont to wonder how our society got here, perhaps we need look no further than our country's past. American society has always been pushing against the strictures and restrictions placed on it by many a legal and/or moral authority; the nation was founded mainly by groups who chafed under the restrictions placed on them by the governments and religious authorities of their original home countries. They came here to establish their own communities, with their own codes, free of the condemnation and scorn they knew at home, only to be forced to endure it again when the Americas were colonized and rules and taxes established by foreign governments. This fomented revolution, a revolution that was stitched together by compromise, because while all agreed that freedom was preferable to tyranny, they also believed that should be allowed to maintain their individual way of life, even under the auspices of a more centralized government of their own creation.

So, while foreign control was replaced by more localized control, there was still the feeling of constriction. The States grappled with the Federal government, claiming their power was inviolate, Constitution or no. This came to a head with the abolitionist movement and The Civil War, when State's rights came into direct conflict with the Constitutional idea that "all men are created equal." Even that war, however, could not quell the feelings of the average American, that somehow others had too much control, too much power over them. This would continue to be an issue, flaring up in the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, etc. States continued (and do still) to fight the Federal government, keeping the Supreme Court busy, as they tried to define the lines of control.

With each passing year, with every event that transpires, it seems the field widens, the divisions become broader, and civility becomes more watered down. Those who profess peace, compromise, consensus, and integrity, are easy targets for marksmen and for pundits. It is far easier to cling to ones own beliefs, to inveigh against change, to see others as a foe to be defeated, rather than a person with the same rights and privileges as you. It is far easier to throw up barriers to discourse, than to tear down walls of ignorance. It is easier to see the world as solid, unchanging, than it is to realize it is fluid and dynamic.

Perhaps there was never any true civility in this nation, only a grudging respect, tempered by the need to provide and to survive. Maybe, back when the longevity of the United States was not assured, it was easier to put aside differences, rather than show weakness to be exploited by a potential enemy. Given that we are more than two centuries on, maybe the pretense is no longer maintained. Now, the petty squabbles and counter-productive clashes of ideals are able to break out and run, unimpeded, throughout the land, bringing us to a point where we no longer feel bound to the rules of social, civilized society.

In the end, we stand on the brink of watching our peace and tranquility torn asunder, by ego and hubris. If we would see our nation survive another two centuries, we must take these breaches, these lapses of judgment and character, and use them as lessons for future generations. A house divided against itself will not stand -- a nation united by compromise will not fall.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

8 years.

8 years is a long time, and yet not so long.

8 years since a cool, clear, sunny day in New York City changed every one's lives forever.

For 2,751 people, it was the end of their lives, a fact they would not have contemplated that day.

For hundreds of thousands more, perhaps millions, like myself, we were witness to their death in one fashion or another, and were unprepared for what we saw.

For tens, nay hundreds of millions of people, it was the end of their cherished naiveté and the disruption of their cocoon of ignorance. The world, which was "out there," was suddenly here, on our soil, in our face.

There was death -- raw and uncleansed -- on our television screens.

There was destruction, of a type Hollywood could never have envisioned.

There were emotions on a scale undreamed -- incredulity, sorrow, fear, bravery, helplessness.

And there was loss. Loss of life. Loss of innocence. Loss of hope.

8 years on, and the day is no easier to process for me now, than it was then, and I was in midtown Manhattan, not at the epicenter of the disaster. It was not I, running through the streets, covered in dust, trying to outrun falling debris. It was not I, clambering down endless flights of stairs, in the dark, choking on smoke, trying to get out into the light of day. It was not I, charging into the chaos, attempting to quell the inferno and rescue the wounded. It was not I, standing over the smoking remains, desperate to find survivors.

For me, it was a day indelibly etched on my conscious mind, so clear now, that to close my eyes and focus, brings it back to sharp relief. Television screens in offices, showing the burning towers, then the collapsing towers. Rows of empty cubicles. The first moments, when word spread like wildfire of the first plane's impact. The dread at the impact of the second plane. Being told that a bomb threat had been called into my building, but not leaving because there was really nowhere to go. Looking between two buildings at the far distant towers, wreathed in their funeral pyres, then hearing a TV anchor claim one was collapsing, and looking back to see it gone. Sparrows, normally drowned out by traffic, chirping in empty streets, so loud as to be unbelievable. Standing in an endless line, waiting to board a boat. Riding a Corps of Engineers river dredge across the Hudson, and seeing the column of smoke rising high above the city. A little girl in a stroller, with her mother, standing next to me. A crowded bus, taking us to the trains. Stopping at the liquor store on my way home, to an apartment I had only been in for ten days after separating from my wife. No long distance service, forcing me to call my parents with a calling card. Restless sleep.

I cannot forget. The pain may ease, but the memory must not weaken. This day was a seminal moment in the life of a country which thought itself invincible and invulnerable, which let foolish pride take the place of measured paranoia. For now, the pendulum has swung and we live in a country gripped by forces that would have us surrender our dignity, our morality, and our rights, to fight an ephemeral enemy, one that lurks in shadow, and knows how to stay hidden from view. As years pass, hopefully this will soften, for if it does not, we stand to work ourselves into another disaster of epic proportions: the destruction of American society.

So on this day, let us not forget the innocent lives lost, the bravery of many who tried to save lives, and the despicable acts that brought us together as a nation that day. Let us honor them in our own way, and let us take from this the hope for peace.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Uncivil War

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina probably feels pretty bad right now.

It is safe to say that his outburst during President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, will go down infamy, and the ignominy of that moment will dog him now and for the rest of his life.

As it should.

When the President of the United States petitions Congress for the right to address both houses, it is usually a serious event: the State of the Union address, a declaration of war, or the announcement of a wide and sweeping change in national policy. The President does not do this lightly. He seeks audience with the Legislative branch, to make clear what the course of the nation must be. As such, he is accorded the honor of addressing both houses in joint session, and with that, is granted a level of decorum that is unheralded in the usual course of politics in Washington, D.C.

Representative Wilson violated that decorum.

As such, he is to be, rightly, condemned for his impertinence. He has apologized, saying the moment got the better of him, but even so, we expect our elected representatives to carry themselves with honor and with respect at these times. His outburst, live, for all America to see, brings a stain on the honor of South Carolina which it did not need. He represents the people of his district, and no matter what they may think of the President, I am certain they do not think he should be treated in such a manner.

The opprobrium raised by this moment of indiscretion began almost immediately, surging over the Internet like a nuclear shock wave, raising the ire of people everywhere, not just in South Carolina, or even the United States. But in this tsunami of outrage, was expressed the dark side of human nature, for condemnation was indeed called for, but the quality and tone of the condemnation was in many ways just as disturbing as the event itself. It was also, perhaps, representative of our society's loss of civility and rectitude.

It is one thing to call a person into account for their mistake; personal responsibility must take the day. It is another, for those calling the person into account, to use language that signifies an intemperance or a self-righteousness that smacks of hypocrisy. Condemnation of an obvious wrong is not a license to let forth with obscenity, profanity, or intolerance. Those who stand against the common good, who do not see the world as we do, who have their own beliefs, and are allowed to hold them thanks to the Constitution, will never be swayed by reason, nor will they be swayed by being treated as lunatics.

This moment is one where we can take a long, hard look into our own comportment, those of us who believe we know what is best. While we must stand against willful ignorance, base intolerance, rank prevarication, and the perpetuation of fear, we cannot do so at the risk of becoming the very things we abhor. We cannot treat our opponents like foes to be crushed by the power of our reason or the force of our logic. We cannot treat them as petulant children. We cannot treat them as lost causes. We cannot see them as "the enemy." We must accept that they do not see things as we do, that we may not be able to reason with them, but that they, too, are part of the America we seek to protect. We must give them ample opportunity to engage in civil discourse, and where they will, be reasonable and not dismissive. If they will not engage us so, we can condemn them, but must not excoriate them, as they would us. We must not play their game.

So let us cry foul for what has happened, but let us learn from it as well. It will require that we swallow our pride and hold our tongue. It will be difficult, at times, to tolerate what we clearly see as fear-mongering and hypocrisy, but if we are true to our belief that the greater good must carry the day, then no amount of such demagoguery can hurt us. In the end, we may not sway our opponents, but we may show them that a measured voice carries more weight than shouted words.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Touching History

It was mid-afternoon. We had driven 5 hours from our home to Boston to be part of the throng that had made the pilgrimage to the John F. Kennedy library to pay last respects to Senator Ted Kennedy. We arrived around 2:30 pm, to find out that they had cut the line at noon. We were disappointed, but hung out anyway, looking at the flowers and gifts left there, chatting with others who had been through or had actually been there the previous day and had come back. We hoped to get a glimpse of the Kennedy family members. We saw a few remaining people being let in, and my wife wandered over to ask if there was any way we could get in.

And so we were allowed in.

The Kennedy family had been gracious throughout, keeping the library open till 2 am that morning to accommodate as many as they could from the day before. And here, now, approaching the time when they were to close down to prepare for the service at the library that evening, to be attended by the family and dignitaries, they accommodated one last request from some ordinary citizens. At that moment, something I had always heard but never known about the Kennedy clan was realized -- they really did care about everyone, and wanted no one to be left out if they could help it.

It was very quiet. The casket lay on its pedestal, the flag draped over it so crisp and vibrant in color, as to be unreal. At the the four corners, stood 4 members of the military honor guard, like wax statues standing there, in their silent guardianship. I was struck by a young woman in her Navy whites, boots laced up so precisely, a rifle, butt to the ground, next to her, almost like a museum display in her own right. It was hard to take it all in, what with the solemnity of the surroundings, the intensity of the scene, and fighting my own emotions, trying so very hard not to burst into tears.

Some members of the family sat before coffin; I believe I saw Ted Jr. there, but my attention was immediately snapped up by Kiki Kennedy, who was there at the velvet rope surrounding the coffin, shaking hands and chatting with my wife. Despite the gravity of the moment, she had a smile on her face, spoke to my wife as if she were an old friend, fawned a little over my daughter, and my stepsons. As I reached the spot, I took her hand, and found that my normal ability with words failed me. I'm not even sure what I said, but she thanked me and my family for coming, and her tone was so reassuring, that I felt a small wave of relief.

And then, just before the exit of the rotunda, stood Patrick, Ted Kennedy's youngest son and a Congressman in his own right. You could tell, for the family resemblance breeds true, and even with the passage of time the features that mark him as part of the clan stood out. Again, he chatted with my wife, and talked to my daughter so very forthrightly; we had dressed her in a shirt we had bought in Washington, D.C., which had a small American flag and the words "Future President" on it. It was my attempt at homage, for Ted Kennedy had fought for the rights of women amongst the many groups whose causes he championed, and what father doesn't believe his daughter won't be President, in this day and age?

My 4-year-old daughter stood there and looked up at him, with one of her beautiful smiles, and he beamed at her, and asked her "Could I be your Vice President? Just for an hour...", to which my daughter responded with the New England brevity she inherited from me, and said simply, "Sure." His face had a broad smile, and he shook hands with all of us vigorously. Again, words failed me, and I could only stammer out "Our condolences," though in my mind, I had so much more praise to heap on his father. He looked me in the eye and told me I had a beautiful family, and it took just about every bit of reserve I could muster not to cry. Here was a man before me, who I am sure would have liked to do the same, but showed remarkable self control, and to honor him, so would I.

The next day, I would watch Senator Kennedy's funeral service, hear the stirring words spoken by so many, and cry the tears I could not the day before. Whenever Patrick Kennedy appeared on the screen, I could not help but contrast the friendly out-going man I had met, with the now somber mourner I saw before me. At once, it was if the doors had closed, and the cloak of good will and honest appreciation could finally be shrugged off, and the import of the moment taken up and placed once more upon his shoulders. I only hoped that each hand he had taken during the previous two days had imparted to him some measure of strength, from each person who had so loved his father.

To listen to his voice, firm, strident, at times playful and emotional, coming as it did after his brother's impassioned remembrance, was so touching that, for a moment, it was if I could feel his life as he had felt it. It was a dam bursting, swallowing me up in a torrent of grief. I knew, if only for an instant, his loss. It was a feeling that surpassed the sorrow that washed over me after 9/11, for that was a shock, a terrible hour of destruction, and a long, slow aftermath. This was the weight of decades, a swirling river of devastation and loss, a boy, become a man, suddenly a boy again, trying to cope with the idea that the father he loved and respected, was gone.

All that day, every time I saw his face, etched by time, pain, and sorrow, I could feel the ache myself. Though our world's are light-years apart, we became connected, if only for a brief instant, in our grief -- his far, far greater than mine. Strangely, that is a gift, a gift that no doubt his father taught him, perhaps unconsciously, to give. For no matter how far apart people may be in this society, we are stripped of the trappings of our lives by things like death and devastation, by standing amidst poverty, or watching the suffering of others. In the end, we are human, and we must reach out a hand, to touch another, to bring them up from their sorrow, or bring them down to see a world they did not know of. In the end, we must share who we are with the world, and do our part to help others. And so Patrick Kennedy helped me, and perhaps, in a small way, I helped him.

That is the legacy that Senator Edward Kennedy leaves behind.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Glories Unforseen, Stories Left Untold

Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy has died.

It is not enough for us to grieve, though we must. It is not enough to remember, though we will. It is not enough to speak of the man's greatness, his courage in the face of cancer, or his determination to do right by all people. For he, more than most, knew this country, knew it's potential, knew the good in it, and knew how it suffered. He dedicated himself to it, not for the sake of a legacy, but for the continued well-being of a decent people, in Massachusetts, and in America.

He suffered right along with us.

He watched his brothers John and Robert step into the fire, to be consumed by it, even as they tried to free the nation from the miasma of its past. He, too, stepped into the fire with them, and became singed by it, but stood firm, and beat back the flames, though we will never truly know what part of him was consumed. He spoke so eloquently of his brothers in death, endured each tragedy of the Kennedy family in turn with stoic grace, and was their bulwark through periods that would have broken anyone else.

He was no saint, and given what he lived through, that should be no surprise, for to put one man under so much strain for so long will rob even the strongest of us of our resolve to be the best we can be. Yet, no foible or fault did he have that was so heinous, as to reduce him to mere caricature. No one would claim he was a paper tiger.

Respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, he fought hard for all people in this country, having a hand in such crucial legislation as the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993). Even at the end, he was continuing the fight to ensure that every American would have affordable, unbreakable health care. He would not let a little thing like cancer keep him from the fight, but eventually, he could not hope to overcome it, and had to fall back to the sidelines as others struggled to bring his vision to pass.

We will mourn, we will grieve, and we will move forward, because if Ted Kennedy has left us any legacy, it is one of perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds or unimaginable grief. He showed us that anything that is good is worth fighting for, and that standing upon your principles need not be politics nor personal flaw. He has left this world better than it was when he started, but the work has not been finished, the last wrong has not been righted, and the last lamp has not been lit. The mantle has slipped from his shoulders, but must not reach the ground; we must pick it up, hoist it upon ourselves, and continue to fight for the good works he envisioned.

Senator Edward Kennedy, the man is dead, but his vision and strength lives on in each of us, and that is the most fitting tribute there can be.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Unreality Shows

The term "reality show" is a misnomer.

The ideas for such shows are couched in concepts we encounter every day of our lives, i.e. survival, mating, caring for family. However, those concepts are twisted, removed from the realm of the normal and believable, and catapulted into realm of fantasy and obfuscation. Reality is stripped away, leaving only a tottering framework, dressed up in promise, false drama, and senseless intrigue.

And people lap it up.

The reasons are legion. It makes some feel better about themselves, because they identify the participants in such shows as "lower" than them, or less capable. It makes others feel good about themselves, because they see similarities to themselves in the people on TV. Some enjoy the banter, duplicity, and ignominy that seem to spring from such shows. Some like nothing better than to root against others.

And the networks create more.

In the process of feeding the public's insatiable appetite for more "reality," it is as if the rules of society no longer apply, and guards can be dropped entirely in order to increase tension and bring about conflict. The shows go further, delve deeper, become more invasive, and serve up a brew of suggestion, intolerance, ignorance, and greed that causes people to move beyond the boundaries of decency.

And the crowd screams for more.

As is inevitable, as the net is cast wider, as the calls for more grow louder, the producers of such shows allow themselves a feeling of invincibility and invulnerability. To meet the demands of the public, and to continue to fill the coffers of their bosses, they push harder, to come up with new and even more interesting concepts.

Eventually, the tipping point is reached, when human decency, compassion, and above all, reason, are tossed away in the name of rating and dollars. Suddenly, these shows become rife with the worst of societal ills: racism, sexism, scandal, innuendo, greed, and pandering. And the detritus of these shows is strewn far beyond the shows themselves, but in those deemed unworthy to participate in them, and those who participate in them whose compliment of human frailties and hidden obsessions are allowed free reign.

The past few months have seen a host of horrors spun out by these shows, from suicide, to divorce, to murder. The "harmless" diversions have clawed their way back from their home in TV-induced "reality", to obtrude on our reality, trying to shake us awake and make us remember that nothing is at it seems, and the people on these shows are, in fact, people, not CGI-images or actors. They bring to these shows the sum total of their persona, for better or worse, and as it seems, more often worse. We can no longer allow ourselves to be entertained by the lowest common denominators of humanity.

As long as the public continues to prefer insanity and inanity to reason, can it be any wonder that those who seek to influence America by spreading lies and misinformation are having their day?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Historically Inaccurate

There has been some confusion of late, in the media, and by extension the general populace, about the difference between President Barack Obama and the late, not-so-lamented Führer und Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler. So let's set the record straight:

Adolf Hitler rose to his position by being elected Chancellor of Germany in an election marred by violence and the suppression of other parties, through the use of his personal mob, the SA (known as the "Brown Shirts"). He then manipulated President Hindenburg to call a series of elections, which allowed the National Socialists to solidify their power, and then upon the President's death, simply assumed his powers by fiat.

Barack Obama became President of the United States based on the results of a fair election.
Adolf Hitler began a series of moves to expand Germany, starting with the takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia, followed up in 1939 by the invasion of Poland, which formally began WWII.

Barack Obama has made no attempts to annex foreign territory and has engaged in a systematic campaign to end the war in Iraq, and finish successfully, the war in Afghanistan, while attempting to open dialogs with several "hostile" nations.
Adolf Hitler openly called for and approved a systematic campaign of genocide against groups within Germany that he felt were responsible for Germany's humiliating defeat in WWI, the collapse of the German economy during the Wiemar period, or were affronts to his ideas of "Aryan supremacy": Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Communists, the mentally and/or physically disabled, etc.

Barack Obama has begun a systematic process of bringing previously disenfranchised groups more into the fold, hiring more women and minorities for high positions in the Federal Government and encouraging people who are poor or unemployed to seek education to improve their chances of securing good jobs, while simultaneously trying to invest in new areas to provide economic growth.
Adolf Hitler rebuilt Germany's economy by his "Four-Year Plan," which encouraged German industry to switch to the building of armaments and supporting the growth of Germany through the use of military strength.

Barack Obama is attempting to rebuild America's economy by infusing it with Federal funds, encouraging the development of new technologies and new industries, keeping financial markets and banks stable, and helping the auto industry weather the economic storm rather than add millions to the unemployment rolls.
Adolf Hitler abandoned diplomacy in 1938 and based his foreign policy on Germany's relative strength and technological superiority.

Barack Obama has attempted to restore diplomacy between the United States and the world, and has tried to de-emphasize America's might.
Adolf Hitler surrounded himself with toadies, boot-lickers, and sycophants, who were eager to do his bidding and would never question his judgment, no matter how bad it was.

Barack Obama has surrounded himself with smart people, who can engage him in lively and intelligent debate, and give him the information he needs to make tough decisions.
Adolf Hitler seized the assets of people he did not like, denied citizens their due process, encouraged a climate of fear, and promoted the superiority of one race (while not meeting the high standards set for it, himself) over all others.

Barack Obama has tried to be bi-partisan, inclusive, and has not denied the right of any group to disagree with him or his policies, all the while trying top provide for the general welfare of the American people as a whole.

There. I hope that clears things up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Specter Of The Gun

At two events which the President of the United States attended, someone outside in the crowd came armed. In the first instance, at a town hall on health care reform in New Hampshire, it was a man with a loaded sidearm. More recently, in Arizona, at a celebration for veterans, a man came with a sidearm and an AR-15 assault rifle. In both instances, the men were carrying legally registered weapons, and had every right, by state law, to carry them.

They were there to make a point.

Their intended point was to indicate that President Obama is in the process of "taking away the people's rights," that health care reform was just the first step to curtailing the freedoms of all Americans.

Ludicrous, I know.

Their unintended point was to show, unequivocally, that reactionary elements in this country are mobilizing. They have been given life by the election of the first African-American President, and simmering hostility, for years kept behind closed doors, is now out in the open. They have also been given a voice by news outlets, using the opportunity to gain fame for themselves and a TV/radio audience for their platform. They know how to play the game, and have played it well.

Now, the Second Amendment has been analyzed and interpreted since its inception, but the intent of the amendment was clear: the Founding Fathers felt that in order to ensure the safety of the fledgling United States, and to make mobilization in case of invasion by a foreign power easier, that American citizens would be entrusted with the right to keep their arms. It was a warning to other nations, that attempting to attack the United States on its home soil would be folly, given the number of armed citizens capable of forming local militias in short order. George Washington had already proven that militiamen and citizen soldiers could, in time of war, been honed into an effective fighting force.

Two hundred and twenty plus years later, the idea that any nation would attempt a direct land invasion of the United States is considered fantasy, given the strength of our armed forces, the weapons at our disposal, and above all, our nuclear deterrent. The armed citizen militia is the very last line of defense, and if it comes to that, that would tend to indicate that America has suffered a mortal blow.

So now the need for an armed citizenry is less pressing, but still, the right is woven into the fabric of the Constitution, specifically as part of The Bill of Rights. While an amendment can be repealed or even superseded by a new amendment, The Bill of Rights has taken on a stature that makes it seem inviolate, as if the mere suggestion that any of its provisions be struck down is madness. For better or worse, the Second Amendment is here to stay, and it's more important than we learn how to handle it, than to bemoan its existence.

For those who are decent people, who take the use and ownership of weapons seriously, and have taken great pains to handle their weapons with respect, the idea that gun ownership should at least be regulated, should not cause them any great concern. Yet, gun groups, most notably the National Rifle Association, stand staunchly against the idea of registering and regulating firearms, as if it some sort of affront, as if they are being told "we don't trust you." It is a peculiar stance for an organization to take that says it is protecting the right to bear arms, because by doing so, they allow firearms to fall into the hands of those who most decidedly should not have them, weakening their position. Just as there are laws that say yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not free speech (per the First Amendment), it would seem to make sense that saying convicted felons cannot own guns, or that guns are not allowed within city limits, would be just as constitutional, per the Second Amendment.

This fetishizing of firearms, coupled with the idea that the basic rights of Americans are under siege, is leading to an inevitable collision, which will not go well. That these men brought weapons within easy range of the President is disturbing, of itself, but not nearly so anxiety-producing when one remembers that our President is escorted everywhere by one of the most elite paramilitary forces the world knows, the United States Secret Service. No doubt a person carrying an overt weapon was identified as a potential hostile and treated accordingly, and would not be given the chance to create mayhem.

The flip side of that is that while an obvious firearm would be engaging the attention of authorities, an unobtrusive weapon could still be in the crowd. It's never the devil you know, but the one you don't, that inevitably catches you off guard. The presence of those weapons was a clear sign that tensions are escalating, and that someone with ill intent may very well try to assassinate the President, given an opportunity. This ramps up the tension further, to the point that soon, a person carrying a legal firearm to a rally or protest where the President is scheduled to be, may find themselves on the short end of a killing shot for making a gesture that, in a split-second, could be interpreted as brandishing their weapon.

It is fine to make your voice heard, to protest policies you feel are not in the best interests of all Americans. It should not require a gun to make the point.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Tyranny of Ignorance

We do not know tyranny in the United States of America.

There are some who may argue this point. They believe that the current administration is "destroying the American way-of-life" and "tearing down our freedoms" and "making us a socialist state."

They have no idea.

You see, if America were currently undergoing a radical transformation via a tyrannical government, they would not be around to be outraged or shocked, or even to scream out their rage at the government. Their freedom of assembly would be curtailed, their freedom to speak snuffed out, their weapons taken, and likely, they would be imprisoned without charge or trial.

And yet, there they stand, in defiance of "tyranny."

We do not know tyranny in the United States of America.

We do not know the banging on the door in the middle of night, the pistol-whipping of a family, being dragged into trucks and driven away, never to be seen again.

We do not know the subterfuge of an election held, results announced, then overruled by leaders on high, who impose their own will on the people, and stifle opposition by arresting and indefinitely detaining the leaders of that opposition.

We do not know the slaughter of protesters seeking redress of their grievances, being gunned down wholesale in the street by mobs loyal to the government.

We do not know the deprivation caused by unscrupulous government agents taking relief supplies earmarked for the starving and destitute masses, and turning them into profits for themselves.

We do not know tyranny.

We live in a free society, as free as one can be short of anarchy, where government makes rules, based on the will of the people, tempered with the desire to do the most amount of good for the greatest number of people. Those rules must pass not one, but three tests, as there is a balance of power, each branch of government reinforcing and regulating the other two. The Constitution provides the unshakable bedrock upon which all of society's laws are made, ensuring that in the end, no rule may harm the basic freedoms of an American citizen.

The people of this country are given myriad ways to alter the functions and fit of their government at every level, from whom they elect to represent them, to what powers those representatives have, right down to altering the Constitution itself if that is required. Any citizen may petition their representative to consider their view in crafting the laws of the land, and the people of this country can hold their elected leaders to account, via the ballot box.

And none of this has changed.

The Constitution has not been struck down or defaced. The branches of Federal government are intact. Martial law has not been declared. People are not being rounded up. The press is still allowed to report the news.

There is no tyranny, unless you count the tyranny of ignorance. It is not helpful to be mired in the past, to claim somehow that America was "better" or "truer" at one time, and that somehow the nation we now inhabit is a shadow of its former self. For the nation that is America today, has been built on the foundation of our Constitution, shepherded through good times and bad by our government, and is still a republic of, by, and for the people. So long as we can come together, work through our problems constructively, without malice or bitterness, our nation can continue to be strong. If we continue to wallow if partisanship, if we allow our fear to overwhelm logic, if we choose to trade barbs rather than ideas, we stand to lose everything we have built here, and for which so many have sacrificed so much.

We must remember that, despite any differences between individuals, we are one nation, conceived in liberty and bound by the desire to live our lives in peace and freedom. The price for this is putting down our preconceptions, finding compassion within our hearts, and making compromises to further the general welfare. If we cannot do this, then yes, out country will no longer be the one we recognize.