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    Sunday
    Sep282014

    This is NOT an Essay About GMOs…

    If I wanted to put together a list of the most contentious political issues in the United States, the ones that stick in our craw, that get to us like slits of bamboo slipped underneath tender fingernails, then GMOs would certainly be near the top. Not quite as high on the list as guns, climate change, or abortion, perhaps, but certainly well above air and water pollution, or even corporate greed.

    To be clear: I’m not referring to what the most people are talking about; I’m referring to those topics that seem to lead us towards a complete loss of sanity and logic, that get our motors running so hot that steam pours from busted radiators. And I’m saying that GMOs are one ‘em. One that gets our goat, big time.

    For some time now I’ve felt that the GMO debate was the one where everything seemed upside down somehow, where conservatives actually had some facts on their side and the more left-leaning among us were the ones having trouble with emotional responses and cognitive dissonance, spending most of the time arguing with buzzwords (the favorite being “Monsanto!” spoken with the exclamation point and expressed with a knowing sneer), while people in the middle seemed to think that perhaps, while the jury was out, we might just want to err on the side of caution and at least let people know what they were ingesting, to give them the choice.

    But now more science is in—peer-reviewed science that, at least on the surface (so far) seems remarkably fair. That science, while perhaps not at the level of certainty that surrounds climate change, seems at a level high enough to begin to suspect (perhaps more than suspect) that GMOs are just fine, thank you. Not really harmful at all.

    Now before you stop reading right at this point and head down into the comments section for some amygdala-driven tirade, I’ll ask you to review the title of this essay.

    A study just released (you can read the abstract here) is the most comprehensive yet, covering twenty-nine years of data and tracing the effects of GMO feed through our food supply, from crop to animal to us:

    Globally, food-producing animals consume 70 to 90% of genetically engineered (GE) crop biomass. This review briefly summarizes the scientific literature on performance and health of animals consuming feed containing GE ingredients and composition of products derived from them….Data on livestock productivity and health were collated from publicly available sources from 1983, before the introduction of GE crops in 1996, and subsequently through 2011, a period with high levels of predominately GE animal feed.

    And the findings?

    These field data sets representing over 100 billion animals following the introduction of GE crops did not reveal unfavorable or perturbed trends in livestock health and productivity. No study has revealed any differences in the nutritional profile of animal products derived from GE-fed animals. Because DNA and protein are normal components of the diet that are digested, there are no detectable or reliably quantifiable traces of GE components in milk, meat, and eggs following consumption of GE feed.

    Twenty-nine years of data. 100 billion animals.  This, by the way, is on top of the thousands of studies which have landed firmly on the GMO side of the scales. GMOs are, according to the Genetic Literacy Project, one of the “most analyzed subjects in science.”

    But, as I’ve said twice now, this essay isn’t about GMOs. It’s about this question: 

    Do you believe it?

    If this were climate science, we might say that we’re close to that 97% rate of acceptance: an overwhelming amount of science all arrives at the same place.

    But do you believe it?

    If you don’t, why not?

    There’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that we need to hold on to our beliefs and ideologies, our “isms,” if you will and that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary we will still velcro ourselves to those beliefs, hooking our thoughts together defensively by the thousands rather than allowing our conclusions—right or wrong—to be ripped from us. The more liberal in our society are often quite comfortable denigrating conservatives who clings to beliefs about the need for more guns, or more abstinence, or less welfare support—all in the face of statistics that belie those beliefs. And, frankly, the denigration is deserved; facts and science matter. They matter the most. But if so, does it work the other way? Will liberals who have clung to their beliefs about GMO dangers “eat their own dog food,” as it were, and concede they were wrong because the facts and the science say so?  

    I have something of an idea as to what the responses will be like, and I’ll probably write a follow-up on this topic in a week or so.  In the meantime, I ask you to ask yourself: How important is fact, is science, when it challenges your “isms?”

    Sunday
    Sep072014

    Is it Time for Single-Issue Voting?

    I find myself this morning strangely sympathizing with those who cast their votes simply on the basis of whether or not a candidate agrees with them on one single issue.

    It wasn’t a position I ever expected to consider. The idea of basing one’s entire decision on a single issue, a narrow thread, seemed always to me the height of obstinance, a flavor of stubborn that I find thoroughly unpalatable. It is always, I believe (perhaps with equal stubbornness) necessary to look at all of a candidate’s beliefs.

    Clearly, some of those issues will be more important to me, to you, than others will. The last few years, for example, have me peering through a jeweler’s loupe at where a candidate stands on gun control, and in years past I have pendulumed from voting rights to economics to war to climate change—all issues that, along with much of the country at the time, weighed heavily on my decision. Still, I always looked for the balance, with no single concern serving as a litmus test.

    That may change this time around.

    For the longest time a number of organizations—from Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC (Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow) to CoffeePartyUSA have shown us that the corrupting influence of money in politics beats all, standing as the Goliath to every voter’s David but, unlike the biblical underdog, continuing to win. Money, dark and light, flows to all compass points, flooding us with special-interest ideologies while politicians, concerned more with their next election than those who elected them, spend inordinate amounts of time simply raising money for additional campaigns.

    One organization—Mayday—is this time taking a far more active role than any have in the past and, in doing so, has made us aware of candidates that until recently had barely blipped the radar screens.

    Founded by Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and founder of Rootstrikers, Mayday is a full-on political action committee, or PAC, and makes no effort to hide the fact that its purpose is to promote candidates who are taking active stances against the overwhelming taint that is money-in-politics. (True to its mission, it reveals a great deal about its own donor base.)

    The money-in-politics issue is of supreme importance to me, one of two that have driven most of my political thinking, speaking, and writing over the last few years (the other being hypocrisy in political coverage), and so when I saw that first flyer from Mayday in support of Jim Rubens, I paid attention.

    Until I saw the flyer I had no idea Jim Rubens was running for the Senate, nor even who he was. My vote was firmly in the Scott Brown camp, a moderate Republican we New Hampshirites inherited from Massachusetts. Brown is the kind of Republican we need more of in Washington, someone who (though he stays just far enough right to gain the needed baseline popularity), is much more of a traditional Republican, having decidedly moderate leanings.

    Mayday, however, has a different idea. Of Rubens Mayday says: “Jim Rubens is the only Republican running for Senate who puts our issue front and center.” The organization then goes on to ask that we “Help Republicans send their party a message: voters care about corruption.”

    This voter does. Definitely. And that brings forth my conundrum. You see, there is much about Jim Rubens that I don’t like, issues that—aside from money in politics—would almost certainly have given me no reason to consider his candidacy. He has, for example, received an “A+” rating from the NRA, and he pledges to oppose gun registration, any bans on “so-called assault weapons,” or any limits on magazine capacity. He also espouses a fiscal policy that comes from the Ron Paul playbook (“The Federal Reserve Board controls the interest rates we receive and pay and prints money out of thin air, enabling Congress [to] perpetuate unsustainable deficit spending.”), gives broad support to charter schools and “family privacy” regarding education, and refers to the “crisis along our southern border” as a “crisis of the President’s own creation,” arguing that we need to send those kids back. On the other hand, he accepts global warming (and its man-made origins), believes that gay marriage in New Hampshire is a “settled issue” and one he respects, and believes we should avoid further intervention in the Middle East.

    A mixed bag, to be sure, but definitely to the right of Scott Brown.

    Ahh… but then there’s this, from Rubens’ website and part of a nine-point “Political Reform Agenda”:

    [I support requiring] all campaign contributions and expenditures of all types and to all entities engaged in electioneering and lobbying to be reported in realtime in an easily searchable public database.

    And this:

    [I support enacting] a public elections financing system for candidates voluntarily opting out of the current private money system. Allow voters to use a portion of their own taxes to fund the campaigns of their choice. Each two years, every citizen 18 years and older is given a $50 tax rebate check assignable to and spendable only by candidates for Congress or President.  

    He then promises that:

    If elected, after my time in office, I pledge not to accept any position lobbying for or against legislation in Washington.

    And so I’m torn. This guy is saying all the things I want to him to say on the issue that is most important to me. And yet he isn’t the candidate that aligns most purely with my own personal beliefs, some of them almost as key. So what do I do? Do I use the litmus test? Do I give Rubens my vote because he’s taking the brave step of abandoning corruption? Do I vote on this one, single issue? 

    Sunday
    Aug312014

    A Public Service Announcement for Viewers of FOX News

    As the summer winds down many of us will—perhaps too quickly—return to the more sedate activities that mark the shortened days, the end of vacation season, and the arrival of any number of poor Oktoberfest beers. For many pseudo-Republicans, this will likely mean spending less time outdoors skeet shooting and more time indoors watching FOX News.

    And seeing as how outdoor activity is healthier than watching FOX News—hell, a meal of pork rinds and Red Bull is healthier than watching FOX News—I’m offering the following Fall/Winter FOX News summary so that you won’t have to waste time watching it at all.

    (Quick note of explanation for those who might be new to this blog: I’m a Republican, but of the moderate/Eisenhower/anti-slavery type which, as it turns out, means that I’m, dodo-like, one of a breed nearing extinction. But it also means that I recognize crap when I see and hear it, particular when it comes from those who have hijacked the mantle and use it to promote hypocrisy and hatred.)

    So here goes: the following gives you a month-by-month highlight reel of what you can be absolutely sure Hannity, O’Reilly, Kelly, and kin will be covering on their respective “news” and “information” hours.

    September

    As schools open across the country we can count on another round of science-versus-religion talk, along with the usual diatribes against teachers’ unions, the lack of school choice, and the shocking number of children who don’t know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. As an added bonus we can expect a special report (not to be confused with Bret Baier’s daily Special Report which, by definition, isn’t Special, or even just special, since he does it every day) from Megyn Kelly on the values and traditions embedded in the role of “stay-at-home” mom, even though she isn’t one.

    October

    The month will largely focus around stories that dredge up the terrors of Halloween. These will be broken into three categories: First will be the rise of Satanic influences in society because we’ve lost our religion to secular (i.e., “liberal”) forces. The second will be something about the economy and how disastrous it really is, with at least one talking head promising us another Black Tuesday. The third will be about how our streets are too dangerous for our children to go out trick-or-treating, unlike back in the fifties when all the white kids could do it without any problem at all. Oh, and it will be Obama’s fault.

    October bonus topic: the beginnings of the annual “War on Christmas” rumbles will be heard, particularly from Sean.

    November

    The adjective “black” will move from Tuesday to Friday, and the meaning shift from loss to profit as discussions about how late or early or early-late or late-early stores open or close or partly open or open only for special deals on the Friday after Thanksgiving. FOX goes a bit schizophrenic over this one, torn between the push for traditional family values (the Rockwellian turkey feast) and the business/growth/economy push so loved (particularly by Stuart Varney.) This particular topic (and its perennial dichotomies) gives us the only real fun in the FOX-watching rituals, so if you feel you absolutely must watch some FOX during the remainder of the year, this is the month to do it.

    Oh… and more “War on Christmas” stuff.

    December

    ATHEISTS! ATHEISTS! ATHEISTS!

    And that takes us through the year. I certainly hope the above has been helpful to you. Note that by carefully digesting these summaries you will undoubtedly free up tons of time during which you can do more productive things, like closing clinics and limiting voting rights. After all: isn’t that what pseudo-Republicans are all about?

    Tuesday
    Aug052014

    Gaza: A Poem

    [NOTE: This is a cross-post from The Pulitzer Praises. For those interested in finding out more about that project, please start here.] 

     

     

    GAZA

    Every child questions the rain

    sooner or later,

    wonders what it means, where it comes from--

    “Those are God’s tears,” we’re told,

    (though never wondering at the sadness that

    makes

    God

    cry).

     

    A rite, these tears: like abandoning the breast

    or walking to school alone

    or staying out late with the third-most beautiful girl you know.

     

    Or leaving home…

     

    A rite: like any other circumcision that reminds

    you of what you are in ways not always pleasant.

     

    And halfway around our world

    (and isn’t it ours, after all?)

    children live who

    cannot walk to school

    or stay out late

    (though they do leave home, and may again tomorrow).

     

    Surrounded by killer angels

    we struggle to understand how people can revere the same history,

    claim the same home,

    disbelieve the others’ same God;

    how people can revisit Abel’s Cain mutiny with such cyclicality

    And such—yes—reverence.

    (It is the only word, after all, which justifies.)

     

    Those truly embattled are those who

    do not yet understand siege,

    or enemy

    or amputate,

    who have not yet been taught to hate.

    A rock is a rock to them;

    a stone, a stone:

    something over which small feet stumble when running for mothers.

     

    Those truly embattled only understand

    the visceral knife-stab of fear.

    For the rest, there are no sharp edges,

    no clean blades,

    nothing to measure success or failure.

    Only body counts until the next time that

    wizened and shattered men pretend détente when

    (really)

    all that is happening

    is a re-arming respite

    while, in the mean time, these children will

    sooner or later

    come to question the rain and will be told:

    “Those are God’s tears.”

     

    But there, just there, a child asks, too:

    “Then what is the thunder, omma, and what is the lightning?”

    Saturday
    Jul122014

    Nails on a Chalkboard: The Implosion of Coffee Party USA

    For the few remaining who actually care, Coffee Party USA is suffering what some have termed a crisis in leadership, but which is far more existential, far more visceral.

    The Coffee Party (CP) is a “grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.” The origins of the organization begin with Annabel Park, a filmmaker and political activist with a strong following. (Check here for more on the group’s formation and history.) Eventually organizing as a 501(c)(4), CP formalized into a national entity with a board of directors and a loosely-connected array of local chapters that depends largely on good will, connections, and civil conversation. This last is very important; from the Coffee Party website comes the “Civility Pledge”:

    As a member or supporter of the Coffee Party, I pledge to conduct myself in a way that is civil, honest, and respectful toward people with whom I disagree. I value people from different cultures, I value people with different ideas, and I value and cherish the democratic process.

    The organization has something of a schizophrenic following: while boasting nearly a half-million fans on its Facebook page, the total number of paying members and donors—as near as anyone can tell—hovers closer to 1,000, making it an organization with a strong reach to the barely involved, but an anemic connection to the true activists. It’s an organization that has done little with little, and with little attention.

    And yet: I’m one of those “few remaining who actually care.”

    I came to the Coffee Party self-serving; a desire to promote and sell my book had me hunting for radio and social media opportunities and so I reached out to then Board President Eric Byler asking for a spot on one of the group’s internet radio shows. I quickly struck up a friendship with Eric which led, first, to him and me co-hosting a new radio show, and then on to my appointment to the CP board of directors. I served until the fall of 2013, when I resigned over ideological differences.

    The people I worked with were—and are—fundamentally good people, but in late 2013 they made a tragic error in judgment. The group has always struggled with fundraising; filled with passion but lacking key non-profit skills, the group, frustrated, followed the lead of one director in pursuing a multi-level-marketing alliance with a questionable energy company, Viridian.  This decision was a groupthinked disaster, leading to discussions of conflict of interest, adjustments of by-laws, and the need to litmus test any new directors. One director—Eric himself—resigned over the issue. When Eric resigned, he went public to the membership (via Facebook), and the membership was understandably concerned (at first) and then irate, particularly over the lack of communication about what had been going on.

    A call for board resignations began and, up to this point, things looked like they could be managed. But then people decided to show their very worst selves. It wasn’t long before the “—gate” appellation formed: Viridiangate. Soon after came the rare but nevertheless obvious references to Nazism, communism, and Stalinism. Factions formed. People yelled, screamed, and questioned each other’s integrity. Board members lashed back, several reaching new lows in so-called “civil conversation.” People were banned from the various CP properties, and posts were deleted. In retaliation to the retaliation, members began hijacking threads whenever and wherever they could, preventing any of those other 400,000 plus people from engaging in any kind of reasoned dialog. Questions and statements were twisted and parsed for positional advantage. People who in the past could have been counted on to challenge such incivility began to reveal themselves as no better or worse than any other participant in any other mob. The few remaining board supporters were continually harassed, badgered, and bothered until, in frustration, most simply gave up and left the conversation. The whole thing was a true exercise in how a small minority can completely outscream any reasonable conversation. It got ugly. Very ugly. And very un-CP-like.

    And the truth, supposedly a priority for CP and its members, was forced to the gangplank, sacrificed to the baser twisting of supposed “facts.” Make no mistake: the board members have tripped over themselves trying to justify banning posts, jettisoning members, fixing elections, and just generally figuring out how to redefine the concept of cognitive dissonance. But at the same time a small group of very vocal members have gone to great lengths to twist any word, thought, action, or intention into cringe-worthy conspiracy theories and blood-red anger, not only directed at the board, but directed at anyone who defends them or, in some cases, anyone who even tries to see both sides of the story. And both sides have systematically opposed any real attempts at conciliation, instead spending time accusing each other by asking ridiculous questions of the “When did you stop beating your wife?” variety.

    Today, the dispute left the CP and FB confines; an article came out about this crisis. Written by Laura Sesana and released on arbiternews.com, the article presents just these kinds of “facts” while conveniently hiding any real truth.

    It presents the following, for example:

    Despite cutting all ties with [Annabel] Park and the threatened lawsuit, the Coffee Party has continued to use her image and slogans (which are protected by copyright) to promote their website and Facebook page without Ms. Park’s permission.

    Certainly “facts” so far as they go. But “truth?”  Not so much.

    Technically, the board did not cut ties with Annabel Park. She left the Coffee Party in 2011, both as a leader and as a member, though she has been granted permission to access the organization’s assets at various times in order to promote programs of mutual benefit to the group’s principles.  Also, Annabel was only one of several hundred FB fans (out of nearly a half-million, remember) who were banned by the page’s administrators, a practice first initiated when Ms. Park was still leading the Coffee Party.

    But then, that truth would get in the way of the desired narrative….

    Also, it’s true that the Coffee Party has ”continued to use her image and slogans,” (though it’s unclear whether they are protected by copyright; CP claims it’s using public sources), but doesn’t also point out that Ms. Park was apparently fine with such usage for the three years that have elapsed since she left the Coffee Party, and only now—when she vehemently disagrees with the board—is she raising the issue.

    And while it’s also a fact that the Viridian plan was “discovered by a group of members,” it would be more truthful to point out additional context, which includes Annabel herself using deception in texts to the board (which she admits to but justifies) prior to Eric’s resignation, and that it was Eric who took the details public. In that sense, it was more accurately revealed to a group of members.

    And what of all that supposed civility? Well, lately there really isn’t much of it to go around. Oh sure, most of the words appear civil enough but, in the same way that Clinton had us ponder what the word “is” is, we all know a good dodge when we see it. And trust me: the dodging would make any storefront politician proud.

    We get things like this:

    You can not [sic] have a civil conversation with liars and obfuscators.

    a blanket statement that apparently makes incivility okay. As in, for example, calling people liars.

    And here’s some snark sent in response to the revelation that a particular board meeting did not include a financial update (despite the fact that dozens of others did):

    No financial report!!!! INCOMPETENCE!!!! OFF with her head!

    This one gets a bit meaner still…

    [She] was not elected either... not to anything, not even [Coffee Party] dogcatcher. Sorry for the comparison to all you hardworking Dogcatchers out there.

    And while many may try to parse all of the above and somehow pretend my definition of “civil” is too self-righteous, try this one on for size:

    [He] is a piece of shit. Period. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that. (I normally don't swear on social media, but I can't think of a better word.)

    I can. And so, I’m guessing, can anyone who is serious about civility.

    For the last four years I’ve been writing passionately about hypocrisy, particularly how hypocrisy in our political arena leads to us-them thinking, demonization, and ultimately a dehumanization of those we oppose. It’s okay for us to use money in politics, because we’re right and they’re wrong. It’s okay for us to lobby because we want reform and they want the status quo. And it’s okay for us to be uncivil because it’s not uncivil if you use the right words and if they’re evil anyway.

    If the Coffee Party is going to survive it’s going to take a few brave people to stand up and shout at everybody on both sides who persist in such behavior. For a while a few were actually doing that, but they’ve grown exhausted and have retired their efforts. And so what’s left, unfortunately, are nothing but the sounds of nails on a chalkboard, screeches reverberating in a self-constructed echo chamber in which only the already converted participate. There is no longer an interest in truth, only “facts; no longer an interest in building, only in tearing down; no longer an interest in two-way conversation, only in unilateral shouting.

    When the dust settles, as it eventually must, I fear there will be nothing left standing, and all that potential will have violently crumbled, a useless footnote in the attempt to create a better, more civil body politic.