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    Tuesday
    Apr142015

    Racism, Unchanged

    This morning, cup of coffee in hand and enjoying an open window’s breeze for the first time since last fall, I finished up the last few chapters of The Store, T.S. Stribling’s 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book (the second in a trilogy) takes place in Alabama two decades after the Civil War, and centers on a middle-aged protagonist named Miltiades Vaiden. Vaiden is a man out of time; prior to the war he was a respected and wealthy plantation owner. Known as a fair man, he treated his slaves well.

    He treated his slaves well.

    Vaiden isn’t a particularly good man, come reconstruction, though not a particularly bad one, either. He has a certain insular honor and suffers from his many losses; post-conflict he finds himself relatively poor, married to a woman he doesn’t really love or admire, and generally wistful about the past. He misses the approbation he used to have, back in the days when he led the local chapter of the Klan.

    When he led the local chapter of the Klan.

    The plot of the novel revolves largely around Vaiden’s attempts to recover an old debt, to rekindle an old romance, and to adjust to a world changing under reconstruction—particularly with regard to the ways in which the white population suffers the reality of a negro population just beginning to comprehend its own freedom. The Alabama whites answer in their time-worn way.

    Suffers the reality of a negro population.

    ***

    Across the scores of Pulitzer winners there are many that touch upon war, and quite a few of those address the Civil War and post-Civil War eras. Andersonville, Gone with the Wind, and The Killer Angels are three of the most widely read, and all include—as they must—accurate renderings of the time’s racial attitudes. But there has always seemed a clear delineation between the depiction of racism as presented by the author in service of a story, and the sense that the author himself (or herself) was comfortably racist. Stribling strikes me as residing in the latter class, as when he casually has Vaiden remark how he intends to “jew down” the price of some goods he wishes to buy or, as in this example taken from near the novel’s end, when an octoroon (described in the book as a “white negro”) presses a legal point against Vaiden, something never before attempted:

    A drunken cry floated through the open window.

    “Lemme git to that black bastard, I’ll show him!” More controlled voices interposed, “Let him alone! Let him in! Time enough when he comes out again!”

    There was laughter from below. It was on the whole a fairly good-natured crowd.

    The crowd gets him eventually, and in the end he hangs from a tree. That fairly good-natured crowd.

    ***

    The novel made me decidedly uncomfortable, and not only for the obvious reasons.

    It’s easy to argue that such books and their authors are merely of their times. Stribling, after all, was born in 1881 and grew up in Alabama (later moving to Tennessee). His own family could have been the Vaidens, and there are certainly characters (including the young lawyer, Sandusky, who stirs up much of the plot’s conflicts) modeled on people Stribling knew. Nevertheless, reading the words results in a certain distaste.

    It’s that “distaste” that bothers me today, that sense that we are somehow better, that we’ve grown beyond the world that Stribling unfortunately limns so well.

    We’re not better. Racism remains essentially unchanged.

    ***

    Just a little more than a week ago an African-American man, Walter Scott, was shot to death while running away from a North Charleston police officer named Michael Slager. Video clearly shows the salient points; Scott was in no way a threat to Slager, who shot the fleeing man in the back. Slager, justifiably, has been charged with murder.

    The story had legs—as do all the numerous other stories of white officers killing African-Americans that seem today in constant eruption. Among the many stories cast across the 24-hour news cycle, one in particular caught my attention, this one just a couple of days ago on Good Morning America. The brief piece included the particulars of the incident (what we used to call the “facts”), but then went on to speculation, the modern media drug of choice.

    We found out, for example, that Scott was well behind in his child support payments and may have been running to avoid arrest and jail. We also heard the news reporter’s expressed curiosity at the passenger in Scott’s vehicle, providing us with just the smallest of intonational hints that something unknown could very well mean something suspicious. No conclusions were reached, of course; like a faulty boomerang the ideas were just thrown out there, never to return.

    And then the piece ended, leaving us not with final thoughts about the shooting, but final thoughts about what might have precipitated Scott’s flight, a different story altogether, and one implying that, perhaps, if he hadn’t run, he would still be alive. That it might be, just a little bit, his fault.

    As if anything might justify an armed police officer shooting someone in the back.

    The story should have ended with the facts. Shot in the back. No excuse. End of report.

    But it didn’t.

    It was at that moment when I realized there is essentially no difference between the post-Civil War racism depicted in The Store, and the post-modern racism depicted on Good Morning America. In both cases the stories go on a beat too long, a beat designed to remind us that when an African-American—or a black, or a negro, or a nigger—does something whites don’t like, then somehow he shares responsibility for his own downfall. His own assassination. His own lynching.

    Racism remains, in very fundamental ways, unchanged from Stribling’s time. We just pretend more these days.

    [Note: This essay is cross-posted from The Pulitzer Praises, a project about reading all the books that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.]

    Sunday
    Apr052015

    How to Talk to a Far-Left-Winger

    Normally I don’t take requests, but the feedback from my last post, “How to Talk to a Far-Right-Winger,” was so strong that it seems only fair I respond.

    If you’ve read that last post, then you likely already know what response I’ll give to this post’s titular statement: “Don’t.” I give this answer for the same reason I advised people not to waste time with a far-right-winger: You aren’t going to change a single mind, a single opinion.

    It’s much harder to see far-left-wingers because they haven’t, as a group, organized and succeeded with the fervency of the far right. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Going all the way back to 2011 (when I first started the Twitter experiment that led to Chasing Glenn Beck), I found it easy to find far-lefters that were just as angry, just as recalcitrant, just as vicious and crude as any far-righter—and just as willing to ignore facts and figures that might jeopardize their bubbled utopian visions. At the time, I wrote this:

    When I separate content from tone, it’s clear to me that the right is simply nicer than the left. The left is where I found nearly all of the foul language and most of the name-calling, where dismissive attitudes were punctuated with just-plain-rudeness. Many sounded like Little League parents who were really, really pissed off at the umpire and had decided to throw beer bottles on the field while their kids stared on in disbelief. Such behavior exists on the right, but…I’ve found that the ratio is completely inverted from what I had primed myself for.

    In the four years since my opinion has moderated somewhat; my ad hoc analysis (i.e., my gut) suggests that things are pretty much even-up in the who-can-be-a-bigger-jackass contest.

    So yes, they exist. But how do I identify them?

    My first clue is often the so-called “GMO debate.” There’s some pretty clear science indicating that GMOs are safe, unless you’re a far-left-winger, in which case there isn’t. Ironically, these same people will argue that the science of climate change is settled (it is) and the science of vaccination is settled (it is, too). But not the one they don’t like.

    My second hint is the undeniable (and compulsive) belief that companies are fundamentally evil, while conveniently forgetting that “evil” is a people trait and that companies aren’t people (despite what SCOTUS says). Also, they seem to want lots of these corporate leaders in jail, thrust into the same system that they claim puts too many people in jail (it does), but which apparently is no longer a concern as long as the right people get put there.

    Those two hints, though, aren’t near enough to convince me that I’ve accidentally engaged with a far-left-winger. Many would argue, in fact, that what I’ve so far described is just routine, walk-in-the-park liberal thinking.  The real test for me is when I notice a desire for some good-old-fashioned wholesale anarchism, a desire to take a collectivist approach; to unionize everything that’s not nailed down (as if all unions are equally wonderful and can do no harm); to nationalize banks, utilities, and health care; to dismantle the military; and to guarantee not just opportunity (a good thing), but equivalency, as if all people were the same, with the same skills, drive, and talent. 

    Sometimes the conversation is even punctuated with cartoonish “burn-it-down” language or a wistful sigh over what Occupy Whatever might have been. And, on top of it all, there’s the absolutely silly belief that such a system would somehow be better, stable, and fair—a notion that completely ignores the fact that there are greedy and evil and bitter people in any system just waiting to emerge into positions of power.

    How do you even begin to discuss such a worldview rationally?

    And so, back to my original answer. If you find yourself talking to far-left-winger, you’re pretty much wasting your time and breath.

    I want to add another note though, and an important one. There is no attempt here at creating a false equivalency because that’s exactly what it would be: False.

    There is no way—NO way—that the farthest of the far left is anything like the farthest of the far right. The former seems annoying while it once in a while manages to get something done, while the latter is dangerous. The right is so listed, so skewed, so radically outrageous when compared to the far left that any attempt at equivalency is rather like comparing a mosquito bite to a swift and vicious testicular whomping. One’s a bit of an itch you feel compelled to scratch at while the other is so devastating you wonder whether you’ll ever sire children (provided you can even manage to get up off the floor). Not the same thing. Not at all.

    Don’t believe me? Then let me ask you this one question: How many elected far-leftists are there in Congress these days?  (And note the use of the word “far.”) There are leftists, certainly. Likely all the Democrats are certainly left of center (else why would they be Democrats?), but you have to go all the way to Bernie Sanders to find an actual socialist. Some might argue Elizabeth Warren is pretty far tilted (I might even argue it myself), but there is nothing—NOTHING—equivalent to the Ted Cruz’s, Marco Rubio’s, and Rand Paul’s of the Senate, nor to any member of the recently formed (and ironically named) “Freedom Caucus.”

    So for those who requested the “other side” of my original essay, here you go. But don’t think for a minute I’m letting the far-righters off the hook. Far from it. I expect to continue pushing that hook in as far as it will go.

    Sunday
    Mar292015

    How to Talk to a Far-Right-Winger

    First a word of explanation.

    Please note that the title of this essay does not refer to a “conservative,” but to a “far-right-winger.” As I’ve said many times (most recently with a certain virality), the two terms are in no way equivalent. Far-right-wingers are anything but conservative; they profess some of the most radical and ideologically driven agendas of any on the political landscape.

    Got it? Okay. So now onto the question under review. How DO you talk to a far-right-winger?  

    Answer: You don’t.

    I'm serious. Just stop. Don’t bother. You’re wasting your breath. 

    Michael Shermer, in his fantastic book The Believing Brain, reminds us that despite the scientific age in which we live, the brain is fundamentally a “belief engine.” And on top of that, 

    [o]nce beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes…. 

    In fact, you may be doing even worse than wasting your breath. Every argument you have only makes their beliefs stronger. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

     

     

    It’s true. Turns out that talking to anyone with extreme views is rather like struggling with those little finger-trapping toys that were all the rage when I was growing up. 

     

     

    And the likelihood of a “belief reversal” (as Shermer calls it)?  Practically nil. It is “as rare as a black swan.”

    So if you can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) talk to a far-right-winger then how, pray tell, are any of us supposed to erode their ideas, positions, and power? Well, I have an answer for that, too.   

    Talk even more with people who agree with you. And talk even more even more with people who sort of agree with you some of the time. Why? Well, for pretty much the same reasons, which boil down to this: the more you believe something, the stronger that belief becomes.

    Why is it important that beliefs become stronger amongst those of us who are rational and thoughtful (whether conservatives or not)? Simple again—the stronger the belief system, the stronger the need to do something about it—and that means that people who are more emotionally invested do more of the most important thing any of us can do, and that’s vote.  

    That’s right. Vote.

    It makes sense, really, if you think about it. If we accept axiomatically that a far-right-winger is never going to change opinions or beliefs, then the only thing we can do is out-vote them. And we do that by encouraging more people to believe just as strongly in what the far right rails against—and getting them to vote. Concerned about the environment? Get out and vote for it. Think the minimum wage needs to go up? Get out and vote for it.  Want to end corporate welfare? Get out and vote for it. Want money out of politics? Get out and vote for it.

    So stop banging your metaphorical heads against the wall. Start having constructive conversations with people who think more like you do; make the change happen by getting more and more people fired up enough to vote against the far-right-wingers. 

    So stop it. Stop fighting with others who only want to fight. Instead start talking with others who will do something about it

     

    P.S. This same advice goes for just about any extremist. That would include far-left-wingers as well, particularly anyone that insists on using that V-for-Vendetta mask as their Facebook profile picture. Also just about any conspiracy theorist (birthers, 911 truthers, vapor trailers, Roswellians, Illuminati-ists) or those who swear by crystals, astrology, chakras, and oxygen bars. Double for those convinced by creationism or believing that homosexuality is a choice.  I haven’t quite figured out what to do with the anti-vaccine crowd, though….

    Sunday
    Mar222015

    If it’s not “Climate Change,” then What Should we Call it?

    For some time I’ve recognized an emerging need from Florida, and as a writer, editorialist, and all-around pretty good guy, I’d like to offer my help.

    The struggle is once again over the term “climate change.” Many in the country—though it seems the sentiment dominates in the south, southwest, and Bible belt—don’t much like the term. They did for a while when it superseded “global warming,” but now even the alliteratively watered-down version has grown unpalatable, no longer meeting the generic (and non-anthrocentric) needs of those on the far, far right.

    It’s tough to control language, though many have tried. We have my favorite example,  the redefinition of “zero” when it comes to trans fats, along with North Carolina’s decision to change the definition of the word “measurement” when it comes to sea levels. Bur for true mastery we must turn to fiction. George Orwell wrote this frightening bit in 1984:

    "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten."

    George writes in the same chapter that "It's a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words.”

    It’s the capital “D” that always gets me.

    In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell also pointed out that “Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

    He could have been talking about what just happened in Florida where Governor Rick Scott, apparently frustrated that language control hasn’t gone far enough, has issued a so-called “gag order” regarding the use of certain words in an attempt to eliminate them from the dialog. The words he no longer approves of? “Climate” and “Change.” Particularly when used together. And particularly in that order.

    Think it’s a joke? Think again.

    But we desperately need to talk about it. An editorial in The Orlando Sentinel says that “gagging the experts in his [Scott’s] administration would be particularly outrageous, considering scientists say Florida is among the most vulnerable states to climate change.” Administrators, however, say that there is no such official gag order, though it seems pretty clear that something is going on. “Gov. Rick Scott and his staff insist his administration didn't ban the use of the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ in official communications,” the article reads. However, “the regulators said the directive came by word of mouth from their supervisors.”

    So what’s a southerner to do if they want to write/speak/pontificate on this most important of topics? As the clip below shows, unintended humor quickly followed in the wake of trying to talk through and around the topic: 

    It’s clear, though, that myriad journalists, newscasters, pundits, and dinner-table-conversationalists will need more options. And so, as a public service, I offer the following alternative phrases for those who wish to talk about it, but fear somehow that they’ll be overheard by the wrong people. Should you find yourself stumbling over the phrase “climate change” in some accidentally public forum, you can try one of these instead:

    • The Gulf Expansion Program
    • The Reshaping Florida Initiative
    • Inland Migration
    • Stream and River Expansion
    • Land Re-salination
    • Why Johnny Can’t Swim
    • The “C-words”
    • Incremental Sweating
    • Angry Weatherbirds
    • Planet-F**king
    • Coastal FOXification

    and my favorite:

    • Scott’s Folly™

    One final note: I’ve written over and over and over again on the importance of knowledge, science, and facts, and say here again: Objective truth must not be politicized. Global warming, or climate change, or [enter euphemism of choice here] is real. It is not a conservative issue nor a liberal one. It’s humanity’s problem, not ideology’s, and humanity needs to join together in solving it.

    Wednesday
    Mar182015

    Because I'm a Conservative--Part Two

    My recent blog post, “Because I’m a Conservative,” has garnered a surprising amount of attention. Much of this is due to the vibrant community over at Coffee Party USA’s FB page and the cross-posting support from Egberto Willies. But that’s not all of it: I’ve found links and comments all over the place. I am marginally disliked at Auburn University, for example, while readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch generally approve of me. I even found a discussion in a comment stream over at The Blaze, which prompted a FB message from Glenn Beck himself (or at least one of his staffers).

    There were so many comments in so many places that I couldn’t possibly respond to them all. But three patterns emerged: those who took me for a closet liberal (many); those who agreed with me and bemoaned the loss of reasonable conservatism (also many); and those who basically told me I was full of shit (very few, thankfully). Running through it all, though, was a request that I share my views on a few more topics, ostensibly to help people determine into what category I properly belong.

    I’m okay with that (and I want to respect my readers). I’d mention, though, that the topics in the original post were intentionally chosen so as to prompt discussion over the label “conservative,” rather than how they might define this particular Incredibly Minor Public Figure.

    But here goes anyway. I hope this (still incomplete) list of viewpoints answers many of the questions raised:

    I like business and I like capitalism. Both get a really bad rap these days. I know there are many rotten apples out there, but isn’t it interesting that we only hear about those and not the good ones? I’m reminded of an old joke about a newspaper headline you’ll never see: “More than eight million New Yorkers survived the day without incident.” Every day, hundreds of thousands of companies don’t do anything wrong except meet their goals, take care of their employees, and try to make a few bucks. They deserve our respect and support as we provide the environment to encourage innovation, stability, and—yes—profits.

    I am strongly against abortions, but recognize the reality of the situation: Abortion is and will be. The more important question for me is how we will provide the safest, healthiest, most nurturing environment to, first, encourage/enable people to avoid unwanted pregnancies and, second, assure them that if they find themselves in such a situation, they have all options available to them.  Being against abortion, by the way, doesn’t mean being against choice. I would never presume to come between a doctor and his or her patient, nor between a patient and his or her God.

    Education in our country is dying the death of a thousand cuts, and I find myself repeatedly angered at the position of the unions as they insist on protecting bad teachers, and of school boards that refuse to leave important decisions to the professionals. Something new is needed. Because of this I support charter school models, school choice, and even a small level of corporate involvement in public education. Some of it may work and some may not, but we have to try, to experiment, else our educational performance on the global stage will continue to suffer.

    I believe we should carefully manage immigration while accepting the reality (again!) of the millions who are already here. We should not split up families nor subject anyone to some Kafka-esque bureaucracy, but at the same time we should not provide unauthorized immigrants with the same benefits as everyone else, nor should we open our doors to anyone who wants to come in. We would do well, first, in attending to our own tired, poor, and huddled masses. There are certainly enough of them.

    Oh, and I want big money OUT of politics, because the most important—the most “conservative”—tradition we have to preserve is the principle of “one person/one vote.”

    *****

    P.S.: I’ve also seen multiple comments expressing curiosity as to my voting habits. I’ve generally been on record, and you can read my views here, here, and here. There are probably a few voting decisions I’d take back if I could—particularly my vote for McCain/Palin—but not that many.

    Special P.S., for Egberto. I’m guessing these are some of the ways we’re different….. One of the ways we are definitely the same, though, is in understanding that reality must be a factor in any policies, and that blatant blindness to those realities is simply foolish.