Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

I perform marriage ceremonies. To some people who know me personally, this seems a bit paradoxical – or maybe even hypocritical – and so, I’d like to take a moment to explain a few things, from my peculiar point of view.

First, let me start by addressing a couple of sources of confusion. Several people have commented that it seems odd I should be conducting weddings because of my history with ‘faith’ as it is typically construed. Although I appreciate and value spirituality, I do not practice or participate in religion. And when people suggest that my participation in wedding ceremonies is somehow a rebellion against social ritual, they seem to get only more confused when I tell them that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Further adding to the confusion is the fact that I have been divorced twice. Many of my male and several of my female friends expect that I should have a dim, cynical, and generally negative view of marriage if only because of my personal history with the practice of it, as it has applied to me. And it is true that, at times in my life, I have participated in some of the stereotypically expected behaviors of a male my age who is twice-divorced. And yet, again I must disagree – all of my cynical proclamations made in frustration, fear, and anger notwithstanding – still I see marriage as an extremely important social ritual.

And that, for me, is a key word in understanding marriage: ritual. After all, why get married? If two people want to spend the rest of their lives together – fine, let them. Who needs a wedding? Sure seems like a lot of paperwork and hassle about something you intended to do anyhow, right? I suppose there’s a little bit of economic benefit – taxes, health insurance and such. But I’m not the sort to view that as anywhere close to a sufficient reason. What about “socially acceptable behavior” – a kind of social validation? Again, that’s not enough of a reason, if you ask me.

So, why then would I still support the social ritual of marriage?

In his book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell discusses the topic of ritual extensively. Here’s a passage from the chapter “Sacrifice and Bliss” that I think might help to illustrate where I’m going with all this:

MOYER: What happens when you follow your bliss?

CAMPBELL: You come into bliss. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel. For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow – I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty; going up or coming down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.

I will be performing another wedding in April. When I stand that day and marry two people to each other, I will not be there just as myself. Most importantly, I will be there as the role that I represent in that ritual – the outside agent, a tool of the ritual itself, whose purpose is to give a voice to, and to guide those present through, the process of bestowing blessing and sanctification upon the marriage itself. And I do believe that marriage is a sacred thing, in much the way that Joseph Campbell indicates – as an act of following one’s bliss, it is one of the most important steps a human might take during a lifetime. Taken in that context, it seems perfectly natural to me that some couples would want to involve their community and peers – their friends, family, and other loved ones – in a ritual to acknowledge and give respect to the significance of this act.

This is something that I take very seriously. I am deeply honored, every time I am invited to act as “master of ceremony” for such an incredibly important event. I would betray my own heart if I were to take such an event lightly. And as agent of the ritual, I take steps I feel are appropriate to the weight of the event itself. I interview the couple, both individually and together, to make sure that I understand what this event means to them, so that as their agent I may correctly represent the significance of the ritual for them on their wedding day. I write a ritual of marriage uniquely for them – no “text book” wedding is likely to capture the entire nuance of significance and meaning for every single couple. Just as each couple, and each individual’s bliss, is unique – so also is the event of marriage.

Not every couple sees things this way – and I don’t marry just any couple. For some people, unfortunately, marriage is just another social bookmark, or maybe some complicated version of “dating” – like dating, but with more paperwork, and maybe a break on your income taxes. That hardly sounds like “following bliss” to me. And it probably is not worthy of a ritual to acknowledge something sacred. I will not stoop, and lower my self to be an agent giving blessing to something that only dilutes or hides the real significance (potential significance, anyhow) of the ritual of marriage.

I know I’m going to sound arrogant when I say this (I probably already sound pretty arrogant), but if a couple is just looking for some paperwork to go along with their relationship, then I’m not the official that they’re looking for. When I interview a couple before a wedding, one of the things that I’m looking for is whether or not I’m compatible with what this marriage means to them – if I’m not the right man for the job, they should know that right up front, and they should go and find somebody else who does correctly embody what the ritual means to them. That’s not always a negative thing either – every couple getting married should have the wedding that best embodies what they are seeking, and what they are expressing. If I’m not the person for that job, then they should choose somebody else, no matter how much I might personally enjoy performing a wedding. It’s that important.

By invoking the blessing of one’s “community” – no matter how large or small that “community” might be – we take a greater step than most of us pause to realize. I cannot truly speak for anybody’s “community” but I can speak for myself: if a marriage is worthy of my blessing, then it is also worthy of whatever support I might be able to give in the years to come. Who would I be, if I refuse to support something I thought was worthy of blessing? When we commit ourselves to the pursuit of our bliss, with ritual and blessing to mark the significance of such a choice – we embark on one of the greatest adventures of a lifetime. In this regard we’re all adventurers, and no adventure is devoid of challenges. Those who choose to marry, in the way that I understand marriage, are brave, crazy, love-dreamers following their vision of bliss and a better world – they inspire me, and they deserve any support that I can give.

So, before you speak out against marriage, please stop and think – are you sure you’re not just criticizing people who are braver than you? I know that marriage today – as an institution, as an adventure, as a ritual marking a couple’s commitment to the pursuit of bliss – is in a poor state of disrepair. Too many of us sell out the dream for a little bit of socially-acceptable companionship, or for a little respite from the fear of being alone, or for a million other reasons. Trust me – I have the life experience, both personal and vicarious, to prove it. But does that really justify us in selling out the dream entirely? I find it hard to think that way, these days.

As you consider marriage as it relates to yourself, I hope you’ll keep all this in mind. It’s taken me a very long time to come to this conclusion. I deeply regret some of the things I’ve said about marriage along my way to get here. If I had understood from the beginning what marriage was going to mean to me today – as an idea, an institution, and a ritual – I would have been a lot more mindful along the way: mindful of my words for certain, but also mindful the support I could offer or withhold from others, and maybe even of my own marriages, too.

At the very least, I hope you’ll give it some thought.

That’s what Simon says, today.

Blessings,

-S.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Privacy is Dead, Part 2: The Real Issues

I posted a couple of comments, following up on my original "Privacy is Dead" post. Unfortunately, the hyperlinks I included in those comments do not seem to be working correctly, so I want to repeat them here:

The International Herald Tribune: Bush's spy program 'lawful' and 'vital'

The New York Times: In Limelight at Wiretap Hearing: 2 Laws, but Which Should Rule?

And a three-part transcript presented by The Washington Post: U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Holds a Hearing on Wartime Executive Power and the National Security Agency's Surveillance Authority

In summary, United States Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where several Democrats and two prominent Republicans (including committee chairman Senator Arlen Specter, R-Penn) bring forward reasonable arguments about balance of power and the importance of the precedents we're setting.

I breathe a little easier knowing that I am not the only one thinking along these lines. I can't take any credit for the content of those hearings, but it is refreshing to know that I'm not the only one who sees things in this light.

At least, that's what Simon says today...

Thanks,
-Simon

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ashes and Snow

I spend 60+ hours a week interacting with and via the Internet, professionally and personally. And I want to take this opportunity to make it as clear as possible: I have grossly underestimated how beautiful a web site can be.

Ashes and Snow

I have nothing else to say today.

-Simon

Monday, January 30, 2006

Partisan Politics: An Example of Addiction?

I’ll start this rant by referencing an article I found on LiveScience.com: Democrats and Republicans Both Adept at Ignoring Facts, Study Finds

The authors of the study referenced in that article presented their findings yesterday at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In short, by monitoring brain activity they found that several brain areas fire rapidly when the subjects were presented with contradictory information from their preferred political candidates prior to the 2004 presidential election, but not the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, where we do our reasoning and planning. And the process ends with firing the “reward centers” which have long been associated with the neurological responses of addicts when they get a fix.

I also want to make sure to cross-reference some comments and observations from physicist and science-fiction writer David Brin, specifically his “Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology” and the corresponding discussion “A society of addicts?” on Contrary Brin.

How many times have you wondered, “What the heck is that person thinking?” I know for me it’s pretty common, especially when I’m trying to follow a politically-, socially-, and/or emotionally-charged topic (abortion would be a good example).

A growing body of neurological evidence suggests that we’re simply not thinking.

Are you starting to wonder right now if sometimes you’re one of those people? Or are you already beginning a knee-jerk reaction trying to reconcile positive and negative emotions that will end in dismissing the negative feelings and firing your dopamine reward centers as you breathe a sigh of relief and say, “That’s not me”?

Just checking.

I’m not just willing to say that fanatics of every flavor and stripe are in fact addicts – there’s lots of evidence to support that conclusion, including informal observations of outward behavior. I’m willing to go so far as to say, sometimes that’s all of us – nobody is entirely exempt. When it comes to any topic on which we have strong feelings, especially if there are some contradictions involved (and when are there not, if strong feelings are already present?) we’re junkies, plain and simple.

I’ve been ranting for years that we all need to pause more often to ask ourselves penetrating questions, and then take the time to come up with real answers, each individual for himself or herself. But now, I’m starting to suspect that this may be more important than I had ever imagined. What if that’s our only bulwark against addiction to stupid ideas?

My favorite ex-wife and I had a long-running conversation along the theme, “Everybody has a vice,” or even, “Everybody is addicted to something.” The idea was, everybody is a junkie for at least one thing, and if I haven’t spotted that thing about you yet, then I don’t really know you. And if I haven’t spotted that about myself, then I don’t really know myself either, and I’m probably lying to myself about what my vice is (which, by the way, is “typical junkie behavior,” too).

At this point in my life, I’m comfortable with the idea that everybody is going to be addicted to something, and that the key to a healthier society is not in avoiding those addictions entirely. Rather, I think we would be well served to acknowledge the simple fact that addiction is part of how the human brain operates (hard-wired right into our dopamine receptors), and what we need to do is learn to be proactive about our vices. We need to exercise some awareness, so that we can do some decision-making on the way in.

Everybody is going to be addicted to something – what will you be addicted to? Of course, if you’re old enough to read this, you’re probably well on your way down the path of several addictions, whether you know it or not. I am. And I believe that nobody who has dopamine receptors is exempt. But if we start growing an awareness right now, we may have the chance someday to raise an entire generation who gets the opportunity to choose, instead of stumbling in blindly, or just backing up into their addictions as they shy away from the stuff that seems really bad to them, the way that we all have.

Why does Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or any other twelve-step program, work for treating addiction? From what I’ve seen, and in light of what I’ve been reading, I’m starting to think that’s because the twelve-step program is an addiction, and it replaces the addiction that we’re there to get treatment for. I think this even explains why you’ll find so many “success story” people who are fanatical, even to the point of being irrational, about the program that helped them.

Consider: any twelve-step program is a formula. Check out a few, and you’ll find that they all follow the same template, because it works. That formula starts with, and along the way reinforces, a message along the lines of, “Your addiction doesn’t really make sense. Stop thinking about it. Thinking is how you rationalized yourself into this mess, and it’s how you rationalize keeping yourself in this mess. And it’s not going to help you get back out.”

And then, when I stop to think about it, it seems that perhaps every twelve-step program follows the neurological formula outlined in that article I linked to above about partisan politics: accept the situation (translation: turn off the prefrontal cortex, if it was firing, and reconcile contradiction by dismissing the negative emotional states); then engage in a process of socially-reinforced behaviors that are deeply and personally rewarding (translation: train yourself to fire the pleasure centers in your brain, loading up your dopamine receptors and leaving you feeling good) as a replacement behavior for whatever addiction inspired joining the program in the first place. Not a bad formula, now that I think about it.

If we consider a broader sense of “addiction” that includes all of the dopamine-influenced behaviors we can enjoy (and potentially become “hooked” on), it makes sense to say that not all addictions are bad. And if I remove the intrinsically negative connotation of addiction, and instead consider it in this broader context, it occurs to me that the problem is not that addiction exists as a phenomenon. Rather, the problem is that I live in a society that’s not real good about training people (me and you and everybody) to manage addictions – to approach them proactively, to keep an eye on them to make sure that they’re not becoming problems, and to make adjustments if they do start to become problems (or at least, we seem to wait until the problems get pretty serious).

I know some amazing people, and I consider myself blessed in that regard. But I also know that I am addicted to amazing people. If I go too long without touching base with one of my amazing people, I start to twitch. I get moody, grouchy, unpleasant, maybe even depressed – until I get a fix, and then I’m okay again. I tell myself that I’m “grounding out” or that I “do it to recharge” but the truth is, I’m a junky for the time I spend with these folks, and sometimes I just need a fix. I’m sure that the psycho-social dynamics are much more complicated, but I’m comfortable boiling it all down to a simple addiction in terms of the actual process and behaviors. I’ve definitely seen myself play out some “addict” behaviors – I’ll go pretty far out of my way for a fix when I need one, even lying to people and jeopardizing my financial stability to get one, if I haven’t been proactive in managing my addiction. And that, to me, is definitely “junky” behavior. Maybe someday, someone will take the time to examine my brain and see if I’m right.

Do I have a “problem”? At this point in my life, I’m inclined to say no, although that has not always been the case. But I’ve structured my life around my “habit” – I make sure I have a steady supply of amazing people who are willing to share some time with me, and a schedule that allows me to indulge my habit. And fortunately, these are folks who also tend to enrich my life – not always, but consistently often. Heck, that’s probably part of how I got hooked in the first place – I consistently feel better afterward than I did before, and if there’s not a little dopamine in there somewhere, then I’m totally mixed up about how this all works.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that, in my opinion, there definitely is such thing as a “good addiction” and I think anybody who doesn’t have at least one ought to go out and get one, right now. And then take very good care of it.

I can also run off at the keyboard here about how this might tie in with “charismatic cult leaders” and a few other topics. But I’m going to show a little restraint, and instead just say this: not all addictions involve harmful chemical substances. Some involve ideas, behaviors, or situations. And not all addictions are intrinsically bad or harmful. It’s up to us, individually and in groups, to recognize and understand these phenomena. And then, we can start putting “addiction” to work enriching our lives, instead of just using it to hurt ourselves.

At least, that’s what Simon says.

Thanks,

--S.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Comments Policy

I would like to take a moment to direct your attention to the bottom of this post. There, you will notice a tiny link that says "comments" with a number in front of it. So far, the number is consistently zero.

What's the matter? By hit-count, I can tell that you're reading at least a little bit of what I have to say. Am I not being controversial enough? I would have thought by now that at least one reader would have disagreed with me strongly enough to let me know that I'm a fool. But so far, zilch.

So, I want to make sure I mentioned to everybody that, by clicking that little link, you can add a comment to my post. Comments are not immediately displayed to the web -- they go directly to me. And then, I review the content and choose whether I'm going to make it part of the permanent record, or whether I'll just keep what you write as a personal message to me.

Since I am at least trying to pretend that I have "editorial standards" I feel it's only fair to share some of them. Comments will be published in the following order of preference:
  1. Rebuttals, refutations, and dissenting opinions regarding the points I'm ranting about.
  2. Comments regarding errors and omissions in my rant.
  3. Anything else that is clear, interesting, and on-topic.
Of course, in order to protect my reputation for being random and capricious, I also promise that from time to time, I will completely ignore the standards I just laid out and share a comment for no other reason than because I feel like it. Hey, at least I warned you, right?

So now, surf over to your most- or least-favorite post so far, click that little link, and let us know what you think.

Thanks!
-Simon

P.S. There's another link, right next to "comments" that says "link to this post." I encourage you to link to any post of mine that you wish, and I will always post reciprocal links (unless you are promoting hate, violence, scam, or spam -- there's enough of that on the web without my help). That way, you can avoid my alleged "editorial standards" if you'd like, while we still preserve a maximum sharing of information, and I still get to preserve my illusion of aesthetic plausibility.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Privacy is dead. Get over it. Let’s focus on real issues.

The United States Justice Department has ordered the four major Internet search engine companies to turn over every single search string anybody has typed into their web browser during a thirty-day window. Read about that in the New York Times here: After Subpoenas, Internet Searches Give Some Pause

And the executive branch of our government continues to defend its right to claim exemption from the Federal Intelligence Services Act of 1978 (FISA). You can read about that in the New York Times here: Administration Continues Eavesdropping Defense

As a result, I’ve been hearing some fuss about “privacy” recently. I know I’m heading for turf that may start to sound a bit backward at times, so let me begin by trying to define some terms. Dictionary.com says, in part:

Privacy noun, 1. (a) The quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others. (b) The state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion. 2. The state of being concealed; secrecy.

And Amendment IV of the United States Constitution Bill of Rights says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

So, what I’m wondering is, why should I even bother to care about my privacy? What am I worried about, really?

I live conscientiously, and I have very little guilt or shame about my life at this point. So, what do I care about who’s watching or what they know? Heck, if you just ask me I’ll probably tell you what I’ve been up to – no need to even watch, unless you’re really curious, I guess. And I’m not trying to pull a “fast one” on anybody, so I’m not too concerned about being concealed or maintaining much secrecy.

In fact, I subscribe to the belief that I should live my life as though I were setting an example that I would want others to follow. Basically, when I have to make a decision, I prefer to follow the path that I think appropriate of what I would call a “role model.” This is all part of my master plan to leave the world a little bit better place than it was before I got here. So, secrecy works against me – I want people to have the chance to notice how I’m living. Otherwise, what’s the use in trying to be a role model?

I need to stop and think for a moment about “the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion.” That’s when I pull out my copy of the Bill of Rights and reread Amendment IV. But the Bill of Rights sanctions “reasonable” searches of my life and property. So I guess as long we reach some kind of consensus about what’s “reasonable” then it’s probably all “sanctioned,” too.

And again, I want to emphasize: I don’t care. If somebody wants to read all of my email, fine. Mostly, it’s boring crap that I can’t imagine anybody taking much interest in. But if it floats your boat, then go for it. And if somebody wants to listen to every word of every conversation I have, over the telephone or in person – cool. Whatever. I was speaking out loud for a reason – I was hoping that at least one person was listening. If somebody else thinks it’s a worthwhile use of their time to listen to my inane day-to-day conversations, what do I care? Heck, maybe I’ll say something inspiring or profound. I doubt it, but it could happen. And in any case, what do I care?

I really don’t care if every iota of information about me is global knowledge, with one exception. I don’t trust everybody to use that information conscientiously. That’s why I don’t give strangers the PIN number to my ATM card. Not because I care whether or not they know what it is – that makes no difference to me. (In fact, several times in my life it would have been helpful if there were more people I could ask about something I forgot.) The reason I don’t give strangers that kind of information about me is because I care about how they might choose to use that information, in ways that are selfish for them and potentially hurtful to me – like taking all of my money and buying themselves a yacht.

Ok, I don’t have anywhere near enough money to buy anybody a yacht, nor am I likely to any time soon, but you get the general idea.

Basically, I would prefer that everybody know everything about me so long as I can trust that nobody is going to try to interfere with my ability to choose the course of my life. That’s my ideal fantasy world, as far as privacy goes. The necessary precondition is that I need to be able to trust everybody, including my government, to behave responsibly and conscientiously with that information, but if I were ever to have such trust I’d feel no real need for privacy.

Now, all of this runs a funny circle in my head. Let me walk you through it.

I couldn’t find a hyperlink for the text I’m about to refer to, but a good friend of mine described a psychology study to me, wherein the participants were presented with a candy dish of the type you might find sitting on somebody’s desk, especially around Halloween. Each study participant is completely alone when they find the bowl and they have no reason to believe that anybody else might be watching. And sitting next to the candy dish is a sign that says, “Please take only one.”

The study participants are divided into two groups: one group encounters the candy dish as described above, just sitting by itself, while the second group encounters the candy dish sitting in front of a mirror. And it turns out, if I am recounting all of this correctly from memory, that people were noticeably more likely to limit themselves to only one piece of candy when the dish is sitting in front of the mirror.

And now I’m really going to stretch my memory (sure could use an NSA transcript of all my conversations right about now!), but I also seem to recall that similar behavioral studies noticed that we’re more likely to wash our hands in a public bathroom if there’s a mirror present, and that we’re also more likely to wash our hands if there’s somebody else in the restroom at the same time.

The inference we might draw from this is that, generally speaking, we’re more likely to behave conscientiously if we have even just the “feeling” that somebody is watching. And that suggests to me a funny leap of logic that some of you are probably already starting to guess I’m going to make.

It would seem that, the less privacy I have (me, and everybody else, too – including everybody in government) then the more likely I am to be living in something resembling my ideal fantasy world. In my view, “privacy” as we tend to construe it on a day-to-day basis is in fact a liability – it makes the world a worse place for me to live in. And I’m selfish. I want to live in the nicest, most pleasant world that I can manage.

So screw privacy. It has damn little place in the 21st century, and we’ll all be better off if we just start getting used to the idea now. That way, we can free ourselves to focus on the real issues of conscientious behavior for ourselves and others.

Which brings me back to where I started this rant in the first place.

When I get concerned about the President of the United States issuing an executive order allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to ignore FISA, which potentially means that the NSA has been listening to my phone conversations and reading my email without a warrant, I’m not worrying about my privacy.

For that matter, it’s worth remembering that under FISA the FBI, the DEA, and any other three-letter government agency is allowed to listen in on my life (or the life of anybody else in the United States) for up to 72 hours without a warrant anyhow – so long as they apply for that warrant retroactively at the end of the 72 hours – and the only review of this action will be a top-secret FISA court that I’ll never even know about. And even if the warrant is refused because of a lack of “probable cause” they still had 72 hours of snooping – they’re just supposed to “not use” the information they collected during those 72 hours. Yeah, right.

All of that is already legal in the United States, and has been since 1978. Did I mention that privacy is dead?

There’s another HUGE issue here that I haven’t heard anybody say a damn thing about recently, and I’m getting a little nervous. Privacy has become a smoke screen, and it’s hiding the fact that we are on the verge of becoming a police state. Do I sound like an apocalyptic paranoid alarmist yet? Run with me here…

We have declared war on an idea. We have declared war on “terrorism” world-wide. And this is not just a publicity stunt – I mean, in the wake of the September 11th attack in New York City, the United States Congress in 2001 passed what amounts to a “war powers” act granting the President of the United States war-time privileges and exemptions from the normal “checks and balances” between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government.

In times of war, this makes sense. During a time of national military crisis, we don’t want to be driving the bus by committee – we want clear, swift decision-making centralized in the office of the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

But we declared war on an idea.

Does anybody remember the last time we declared war on an idea? I seem to recall a “war on drugs” that, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t especially successful. Except that it did manage to make us the one nation on this planet with the highest percentage of our population in prison – higher even than countries that we openly criticize for using their prisons to lock up people whose politics or ideology do not agree with the ruling regime. And the majority of those people in our prisons are there for “crimes” which did not have a single person whom we can name as the “victim.” But I digress.

If this “war on terrorism” goes as well as the “war on drugs” did, then in a few years I should be able to walk out my front door at 2am on a Saturday and head for any relatively low-income urban neighborhood, where I’ll find groups of terrorists hanging around on street corners, doing their business.

That example is facetious, but I hope you can see where I’m going with this?

If you follow the arguments in the press, the President claims that the “special powers” granted by Congress for the duration of this “war” allow him to bypass FISA and other, similar checks-and-balances ordinarily imposed on the executive office.

A war against an idea never ends.

If these arguments are allowed to stand, we are agreeing to at least a partial suspension of the traditional “balance of power” between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government, indefinitely. So long as that 2001 Congressional Act stands, and the idea of “terrorism” continues to exist in the world, we will not revert to the traditional peace-time balance of power that has served us reasonably well for a couple hundred years.

This seems like an incredibly bad idea to me. Weren’t there some really good reasons why we wanted a balance of power within our government in the first place? Are we really willing to say that we just don’t need that right now, and that we can live without it indefinitely? Somehow, that feels wrong to me. In fact, it feels a little bit unconstitutional.

Slippery-slope arguments are fallacy, and I think most of us understand that idea at least a little bit. But I do feel that we are setting precedent right now, and we may want to stop and think carefully before we move forward as a nation. To the best of my knowledge, we have not ever before in history granted war-time powers to a President for the duration of a war against an idea.

I’m going to stop short of making direct historical comparisons to dictators who consolidated executive power by removing “checks and balances” from the political environments in which they arose. I am NOT going to stop short of saying that I’m very uncomfortable with the present situation.

Do I want to live in a country that exists, at least from a legislative stand point, in a “permanent state of war” against an idea? How comfortable am I, living in a nation where supreme executive authority rests with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, when that supreme executive also commands intelligence and federal-police services with at least partial exemption from legislative and judicial oversight and review? And did I mention that the office of the President has already claimed exemption from obligation to release information to my elected representatives in Congress on more than one occasion, as a result of the “special powers” already granted by Congress? I am damn uncomfortable with this.

And the really sticky part for me is that I have no clear idea what to do. I do not believe that we are about to find ourselves walking through the pages of George Orwell's 1984. I do not believe that the President is going to dissolve Congress and declare himself Emperor. I do believe that we are setting a precedent that increases the potential for future abuse of the office of President of the United States, and that it’s going to take an astute legislative body to monitor carefully for those potential abuses in the future. And I do believe that there are some conscientious people already elected to Congress, who are actively trying to figure out what is right and good for this country.

So, here’s what I’m doing right now. I’m signing up for memberships to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International. I’m reading the news every day, and watching closely to see what happens. I’m raising my voice, and asking questions. And I’m asking for some help. I’m asking you – anybody who’s reading this – for suggestions. I mean, am I missing something huge? Am I misunderstanding this situation in some profound way? Am I a moron? Somebody throw me a rope – I feel like I’m flailing in the water on this one.

Thanks,

-Simon

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Healthcare, Federal Budget, Lobbying, and Corruption. “$22 Billion is a lot of money.”

“$22 Billion is a lot of money.” That’s the quote that caught my eye from an anonymous Republican healthcare lobbyist in today’s Washington Post. The complete article from the January 24, 2006 Washington Post appears here:

Closed-Door Deal Makes $22 Billion Difference

If I am reading this article correctly, and if the events and details are presented accurately, I must confess that I’m a bit flabbergasted. Where do I even start to rant?

The entire body of elected officials has voted as a whole and chosen to reduce the federal budget by removing payments deemed excessive that are made to Health Management Organizations (HMOs), progressively through 2010. This makes sense – we vote for folks, and then they go and make laws and manage budgets for us. If I don’t like the way I’m being represented or the policies that come from my representatives, I vote differently in the next election to try to get somebody else to represent me. And the diversity of that elected group as a whole, in theory, represents the diverse opinions and wishes of the constituency of the United States as a whole. It’s not a perfect system, but I think I can live with it.

And then, after the elected bodies have voted, members of only one party meet – behind closed doors, without a recorded vote – and make $22 billion dollars worth of changes that benefit a group which has been lobbying heavily to ensure that its pockets will be well-lined with federal dollars in the years to come.

Gosh, why does that seem wrong to me somehow?

I’d like to be happy that more of my tax dollars will be going to “health care” – but there’s more that’s wrong here. Because the dollars in question are not being spent to give health care to anybody – instead, these dollars (22 billion of them) are the estimated amount that the federal government is overpaying to HMOs, above and beyond the cost of the care provided by the HMOs to patients.

Are you friggin’ kidding me? And this is LEGAL?

Well, yes – unfortunately, it is. And conference committee decisions like this one are relatively commonplace, although the matter seems perhaps worse in light of the current administration’s demonstrated preference to avoid due process whenever possible.

I could go on and on about what I think is wrong, but I think I’m doing us all a disservice if I just whine without offering something better. But where can change come from? Our present system seems to have some tragic flaws, and some of those flaws seem to be absolutely necessary to the effective running of a government. Try to remove them, and we just trade one set of problems for another.

One hope I have in the near term is that public distaste will provide some pressure toward improvement – both in terms of legislation, and in simple terms of better behavior on the part of our elected officials. This may seem naively optimistic, but there are clearly at least some legislators, reporters, and even lobbyists who feel that these behaviors are wrong, and are willing to speak out against them. So, in my opinion that’s a start – those of us who feel that something is genuinely wrong with the way things happen, raise our voices, raise some awareness, and become agents of change in the short term. It won’t save us, but it is a start. My aims, however, reach much farther.

Have you ever noticed that there is no need for a law prohibiting something that nobody wants to or is willing to do? Even if such an activity is illegal, it doesn’t matter because nobody is willing to do it.

I don’t want better legislation and laws. I want better people. And better laws don’t make better people. How many times in my own life have I looked at the list of prohibited activities as a kind of challenge, a checklist basically, of things to do? I didn’t need more laws – I needed better decision-making skills.

I am not suggesting that we need to become angels. That’s absurd on several levels, and it’s a kind of naive optimism that even I am not willing to stoop to. There always has been and always will be a diversity of human beings, from the best of us to the worst of us. It’s a spectrum, and that’s the way it should be. Anything else would be inhuman.

And frankly it’s too late for us. You and me and all the people holding office in Washington and elsewhere, we grew up in this. And apparently, what we have right now for government is the best that we all collectively have come up with so far. So, what is it that I am hoping?

Raising a voice and raising awareness is a start – we have to do that, or we’ll never get anything better. Staying silent is like saying that this is okay. And it is not. We are foolish, ignorant, short-sighted, and lazy – unless we remember not to be. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need a little bit of reminding. And like I said, that’s a start.

But our real hope, our only hope, for better results lies with people who don’t exist yet. I believe that the only hope for humanity is to figure out how to raise a generation of children, who in turn are capable of raising another that’s better – until at last we raise a whole generation so saturated with people of conscience and decency, that any time I go to do something foolish, short-sighted, lazy, hurtful, or crooked, there will be so many people standing around me asking me what the heck I was thinking that I don’t often get to finish the thought.

And when I say children, I don’t just mean my own personal genetic material. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think maybe it takes a nation to raise a legislator or a president. I’m not real pleased with the way my nation raised the president we have now. And it’s too late for him, just like it’s too late for you and me. But we can learn from this, and do better in the future.

“That’s sweet, Simon. But how do you suggest we pursue this utopian ideal? Didn’t you already say it’s too late for us?”

Yeah, I did. But I can start right now, building a better future for people I won’t live long enough to meet, and reaping a few benefits along the way. I can start by asking questions, out loud and in public, like, “Is this wasteful? Is this hurtful? Is this what I truly believe is decent?” and then encouraging others to ask themselves the same questions.

I don’t especially care if your answers have anything in common with mine, as long as we’re asking the questions, and thinking about the answers. If we do that, and we don’t let up, this planet may someday be full of humans who ask themselves these questions automatically, as part of the natural way of knocking around the world. I fantasize about a world where anybody who doesn’t ask those questions every day is considered a freak.

That’s what I want. And so, I’m doing it now, and I’m not going to quit, even though I know that I will not live long enough to see the end results. Why? Because it is not wasteful, and it is not hurtful, and it is what I believe is truly decent. And whatever you believe, I hope you’ll ask yourself the same questions.

That’s what Simon says.

Thanks,
--S.