Welcome to my blog where I will post commentary on issues ranging from fiction to public policy. Tucked away in the Idea Boxes are “how to” tips on a variety of projects that have become part of our family’s culture over the years. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas there. My blog will take you through the fantastic journey of writing fiction, as well as the decisions I will be making about publication of my first novel One Summer in Arkansas. Thanks for your interest.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Stop Political Hatred in America

As we begin this week of the transition of political power, our country has never been so divided.  And while I’m not happy about the outcome of the November election, my biggest concern is not how the country will fare under a Trump presidency.  My biggest concern is whether our democratic political system is sustainable in today’s America.

As many have pointed out, the divide, distrust and downright hatred between our two major political parties is more extreme than anything we have previously witnessed in U.S. history. Based on recent studies by respected academics, members of opposing political parties are having less and less to do with each other, believe the other party is ruining the country, oppose any idea (no matter how rational) that is associated with the other party and earnestly believe politicians from the other party, and those who support them, are evil.  Apparently this new political distrust is stronger even than racial or ethnic bias.

There are a number of reasons that explain this deep distrust.  People are increasingly living in communities with similar political and moral values, in part through choice and in part because of educational and socio-economic barriers.  The 24-hour news cycle, driven by profit motive to cater to sensationalism and often to a particular base, has been outdone by the Internet, where unfiltered opinion is disguised as information, sometimes intentionally false and easily spread through social media.  And Congress has set a poor example for the rest of us, as our elected representatives deem it a badge of honor to demean the opposition, refuse to compromise and cater to a gerrymandered base.

Presidents are going to come and go, but the disintegrating tribe that we call America holds the future for our children and grandchildren.  I think our most important political mission in the years ahead is to try to rebuild trust and to improve communication between the two ends of the political spectrum.

Stopping political hatred does not mean ambivalence or withdrawal from political commitment.  There are many causes which claim to uphold the country’s deepest values, giving all our citizens the best shot at leading the best lives possible.  And it is part of our civic responsibility to discern, to the best of our ability, what those causes are and to work towards the common good.

In the meantime, can you take a few personal steps to help mend the political divide?  This is generally easier to do if your party is in power.  But it’s perhaps more meaningful when the opposition is in power.  At a minimum, a “loyal opposition” that is respectful, even when actively pursuing its own priorities, will be more likely to bring moderates to its side in the next election.

·        Do not accuse a person or a political party of evil intent.  You can’t get inside another person’s heart.  Try to limit your criticism to the idea and its impact.

·        Find a way to dialog with someone from another political perspective, at least occasionally.  Find at least one point on which you can agree that the other party has raised a legitimate concern.  Learn to be a better listener.

·        Reject news coverage that encourages conflict or is excessively biased, either way.  If your television news features a broadcaster or guest pundit who is hostile or excessively biased (even if there is a headshot of another pundit equally biased on the other side), turn off the television.   And better yet, send a note to the producer as to why you turned them off.

·        Pay more attention to the contrarians.  When an elected Republican agrees with some specific Democratic proposal, or when a Democrat votes against the party line on one proposal, send them a note of appreciation for willingness to cross the aisle.

·        Encourage our schools to teach civics.  Support school efforts to teach critical thinking, discernment of accuracy over the Internet and the importance of civic involvement.

·        Reward news commentators and politicians who admit that certain problems are hard, without easy answers, and that it’s not all that clear whether we should pursue one path or another.  When you run across any politician or pundit who will admit to shades of gray, reward him or her with a letter of support.

·        Accept the fact that there are legitimate theories of improving our society from both political parties.  After all, the persistent problems that plague us have not been changed much by changes in controlling political parties.  Everyone would agree, for example, that poverty is undesirable, particularly of course from the perspective of those living in it but also in terms of the well-being of society as a whole.  If there were an easy answer to this, someone would have already found it.

·        Support organizations that work around the country towards more balanced political discussion.  Explore whether there is some equivalent of the foreign policy discussions, “Great Decisions,” pertaining to politics.  Support political forums that are non-political, such as the League of Women Voters, and grapple with how to become a better democracy.

Hard arguments in support of your view of the world turn out to be very ineffective in changing someone else’s mind.  Respect, openness to alternative points of view and courtesy are more effective political tools than argument.  Let’s start with the assumption that most Americans have good intentions and want to do what’s right to create a better world for their children and grandchildren.  If we can agree to that much, we have a chance to do a better job in running our democracy.       

Monday, September 12, 2016

If Mother Teresa Ran against Hitler for Congress...

I am deeply disappointed in the way the media is covering the U.S. presidential election and in their abdication of responsibility to instill critical thinking into the political process.

There are two problems at the root of our media’s role in the deterioration of the electoral process and ultimately of democracy itself.  The first rests at the foot of the colleges and graduate schools who teach ethics in journalism.  The second is a by-product of a capitalistic economy run amok.

Today’s newspaper reporters and television producers have been indoctrinated with an odd theory relating to a journalist’s responsibility to present news without personal bias.  The method being taught directs the journalist to give equal time and credibility to each side of every issue and to every political candidate.  And since the media apparently cannot afford their own research on complicated issues, they meet this requirement by bringing in two partisans representing each extreme side of the issue and letting them go at it, each making full-throated arguments for their particular self-interested view of the world, without any kind of screening by the anchor or producer.

If Mother Teresa were running against Adolf Hitler for Congress, for example, you’d bring in a Catholic nun (who, in addition to her seminary credentials, holds a law degree from Harvard), on one side, to argue against, say, Joseph Goebbels on the other.  They would each get equal time and equal respect and nobody would try to interpret what they said.

Whoever thought this up, what on earth made you think anything useful to public understanding of complicated issues could come out of it?

The second cause of the pathetic state of critical thinking among the American electorate is the single-minded profit-driven focus of television news (and, to a lesser degree, every other source of political news) to make everything a controversy, blowing up every molehill into a mountain, keeping viewers glued to the channel no matter how ridiculous the overplay of conflict and chaos.  I first figured this out when I would check the weather channel before going somewhere, packing in anticipation of hurricane and tidal wave, only to find sunshine when I arrived.  You may think one channel or another is excessively biased, and while it’s true most of them are trying to attract a particular base, the truth is they all want to see a close race.   The only loyalty these guys have is to their quarterly profit. 

Is anybody surprised that so many of our citizens are conspiracy-theorists who believe anything they hear on talk radio?

These two candidates for president are nowhere near comparable in their capability to serve the nation and it just makes me heart-sick that the citizens of this once-great democracy no longer have access to the necessary education or to a public-interested news source to help them understand what’s going on.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Meritocratic Parenting

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about “Love and Merit” in a column describing child-rearing in the 21st century.

Brooks talks about two essential features of parenting today:  unprecedented praise and unprecedented “honing.”  He seems to be okay with the first part, in spite of the overused mantra that each child is special.

But he sees today’s anxious parental pressure as a kind of merit-based honing for success that belies the illusion of unconditional love.  Acknowledging that this pressure is intended to promote the child’s happiness in the future, Brooks fears that children who don’t excel in the classroom or on the field are left feeling somehow unworthy and perhaps unlovable.  And while manipulation of behavior may bring short-term results, the effect over the long run makes children risk-averse and insecure.

It wasn’t all that much different back when we were raising children.  But in today’s winner-takes-all economy, parents are more anxious than ever about whether their children could fall through the cracks.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the effort to manipulate children towards success runs the risk of doing more harm than good in the long run.