Saturday, February 28, 2009

A topless proposition

Apparently boobs are good for the economy. At least in Vassalboro, Maine.

Donald Crabtree's Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro, Maine, opened Monday and business has been steady all week. In fact, Crabtree reports he's already seeing return customers.

The grand opening was newsworthy enough that CNN featured it on their news site.

Crabtree, like successful entrepreneurs time immemorial is merely giving customers what they want, and in the process, doing his part to stimulate the economy (and probably other areas).

"I know what people want," he said. "People like nudity, and coffee is profitable. Sure, I'd start a coffee shop, but I'd be out of work in a week."

Will Starbucks follow suit?

Defining class warfare

There's been a real brouhaha over the Obama plan to raise income taxes on those making more than $250,000/year. With the fallout from the administration's tax plan has been a steady drumbeat of reporters and other pundits trumpeting the term, "class warfare" as a descriptive in asking the wealthy to contribute equitably to America's future success.

Take for instance reporter Jeanne Cummings article for Politico, titled, " http: Media Matters describes Cummings' article, calling it "the oddest of all, promoting the "class warfare" theme with a series of misguided and nonsensical grievances. She began by complaining, essentially, of being insufficiently surprised by Obama's plans:"

Jamison Foser, who penned the Media Matters piece on the class warfare meme perpetrated by the chattering class (aka, the Media), goes on to note several other instances among the so-called liberal media (see Bernie Goldberg, who sees a liberal conspiracy behind every story coming from the media, except Faux) of going to that same well concerning the changes in the tax structure.

Ben Stein, in the New York Times, cites Warren Buffett, who indicates that in fact there is class warfare, and it's the wealthy that are winning.

According to Buffett, a man with a net worth approaching $50 million, “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

There's the real issue of class and the pitched battle at hand.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tax history lesson

Republicans continue to elicit furor over President Obama's plans on raising taxes on U.S. couples making more than $250,000 per year. I'm sure the right-wing talking heads have been doing their level best to incite their brain-addled followers to fits of collective apoplexy because our new president is "redistributing the wealth."

John Boehner, a regular practitioner in the art of misinformation and Republican spin offered his usual loyal opposition insights, lacking in any factual basis. Commenting on the president's plan for higher taxes for the wealthy and the first steps toward guaranteed health care for all, Boehner offered the following bromide:

"We can't tax and spend our way to prosperity," said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. "The era of big government is back, and Democrats are asking you to pay for it."

I'd like to remind Mr. Boehner, and his fellow Republicans that permanent tax cutting for the wealthiest Americans hasn't worked too well, either.

While Mr. Obama is proposing a mere raising of the top income tax bracket from 35 percent to 39.6 percent for those taxpayers, while increasing their capital gains rate from 15 to 20 percent, this is a much smaller percentage than what the top U.S. bracket was just after WWII.

While Republicans struggle with reality-based approaches to policy, in fact, the top U.S. tax bracket had reached 94 percent during World War II, on income over $200,000 (approx. $2.49 million in today's dollars). It dropped down to 91 percent in 1946 and remained there until the Kennedy tax cuts in 1962-64. Brackets weren't inflation adjusted back then, so it still applied on income over $200,000, which by then had reached $1.41 million in today's dollars. (courtesy of The Tax Foundation). You can view U.S. tax brackets from 1913 to today, here.

Recommended reading for anyone who really wants the truth on tax policy in the U.S. is David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else. Johnston was interviewed by Amy Goodman about tax breaks for corporation, on her Democracy Now program, in early February.

If you choose to read Johnston's book, you'll learn that since the mid-1970s, the tax burden in the U.S. has steadily shifted from the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers, to those in the middle income brackets. Of course, I've tried using that tack with the pro-Limbaugh crowd, and they just deny, since all they need to know emanates from the mouth of El Rushbo. Here's the Limbaugh Lie of the Day for Thursday.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pray for Power (Steering)

I've been offline for a couple of days, or at least since 2:00 am Monday morning. While the neo-Luddites love to extol the virtues of "going off the grid," I like my electricity convenient, like when I flip the switch, it's there.

The title of this post hearkens back to my Bible college days, at wonderful Hyles-Anderson College, where all us preacher boys were under the spell of Jack Hyles, or Dr. Hyles as he preferred to be called.

Hyles had a variety of odd doctinal beliefs, including his teachings on the Holy Spirit. He believed that God imbued certain candidates with a higher octane of power, due to petitioning the Holy Spirit for an extra portion. He regularly extolled H-A students in chapel to "Pray for Power."

We were all taught that the 3 X 5 card was our friend--a place to write Bible verses for memorization, like lunch breaks during our 2nd, or 3rd shift jobs most of us students were working to pay for the privilege of obtaining a degree from a non-accredited institution. Who needs the USDOE, or CHEA, when it was God that did the accrediting, according to Hyles.

I had written "Pray for Power" on a 3 X 5 card and taped it to the dash of my '74 Plymouth Scamp as a reminder on my 45 mile drives to Chicago to work as a security guard (when I wasn't falling asleep and ending up on the median strip, due to sleep deprivation).

One morning, I came down to the car to go to class and someone had added the additional notation of "steering," so that my card now read, "Pray For Power Steering."

Not sure why losing my power and regaining it made me think of that story, but it did.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

History Maker Mondays-07

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
--Thomas Jefferson

Freethought in America

It’s always of interest to me when I hear Christians fret about how the media, or society, or some other bogeyman discounts their importance in the fabric of everyday life. While the media doesn’t always get their story “right,” it at least gets a telling. What’s more troubling to me is how the history of freethought in the U.S. is not even known, and yet that history might be more compelling than any perceived persecution complex exhibited by right-wing religion in America. Even more important is how the history of the freethought, or rationalist movement was instrumental in the founding of our nation, the writing of the Constitution, and most major social justice movements in this country.

The following definition, found at Wikipedia is as good a concise definition as I have been able to find on the movement.

Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of reason and logic applied to evidence, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma. The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers.

America’s founders were freethinkers

Last Monday, I wrote my HMM post on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote that “the mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” He penned that in 1837, but it was never more pertinent than it is now. Americans have been terrible stewards of their intellectual heritage, allowing the memory of our past to fade in a blur of the trivial and the fleeting. Anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are endemic to our time, in a way that is unprecedented in our nation’s history.

American freethought was inclusive, being comprised of those that were totally antireligious—those regarding all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence throughout society—as well as having those Americans who held a private, unconventional faith, possessing some form of belief in God, or Providence, but at odds with an orthodox practice of that faith. Among freethinkers were also those calling themselves deists, many of them our nation’s founding fathers; deists believed in a deity that set the universe in motion, but took no active role in the affairs of men. Some would characterize this God as a “cosmic watchmaker.”

The common thread that held this odd amalgamation together was a shared conviction in a rationalist approach to the fundamental questions of human existence. Freethinkers believed that the affairs of man should be governed not by faith in a supernatural being, but a reliance on reason and evidence derived from the natural world. This conviction had its roots in Enlightenment philosophy.

Many preeminent freethinkers, like Thomas Paine, have all but been airbrushed from history books. Paine, who students learn about for his steadfast call to patriotism in one of America’s darkest periods, warning his countrymen to not be “summer soldiers,” has been deprived of his proper role, however, in American history primarily because in his book, The Age of Reason, written in 1794, he propagated the idea that Christianity, like all other religions, was the invention of man, rather than God. For daring to speak the truth, as he saw fit (exhibiting the same heroic traits that he did in fighting for liberty during the American Revolution), he died a pauper. President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine 80 years later as that “filthy little atheist.”

Among freethinkers from the founding period of our nation, only Thomas Jefferson and James Madison have received their due in American history, although many of their Calvinist contemporaries saw fit to tar and feather them, labeling them atheists, infidels, heretics, and probably some other choice names.

In a country where for the past eight years, our president, and many of his supporters have operated under some mistaken illusion that America’s fate has been ordered by a divine plan, the idea that our founders might not have been fundamentalist Christians will cause conservative Americans cognitive dissonance. In fact, I’d wager that most of them probably have tuned out by now, or are about to bail. Alas, that is part of the problem facing America. This inability to consider opposing viewpoints, instead, choosing to only listen, watch and read material that reinforces your viewpoint, no matter how shaky the foundation propping up that viewpoint it.

The golden age of freethought

In the U.S. the period from about 1875 to 1914 was considered the golden age of freethought, when it constituted an influential movement in society. Ironically, this period of time corresponded with a widespread expansion of all religious institutions in the country. Between 1850 and 1906, capital expenditures for church construction tripled. Much of this growth can be attributed to the establishment of new congregations in the south by former slaves. Interestingly, black Americans had little connection with the freethought movement. Some believe that this had to do with their attachment to their own churches after slavery, the one institution of theirs that was beyond the control of whites.

This high-water mark for freethought in no way suggests a unified movement, however. In fact, the lack of a common thread might be the most convenient way to characterize the movement. Their political views spanned the spectrum, from anarchism on the farthest left, to Spencerian conservatism on the right. A freethinker might be a Republican, Democrat, or even socialist, upper, or lower case. The one political concern that unified the group was their support for absolute separation of church and state. Like the deists of Jefferson’s time, which fought tax support for religious institutions, almost universally Protestant at the time, the nineteenth-century equivalent was driven by widespread concerns about the growth of school systems funded by the Roman Catholic Church. Given Pope Pius IX’s strident denunciations of religious pluralism, secular government, modernism, as well as science caused great concern among many freethinkers. It was not driven by any anti-Catholic bias, however. Freethinkers have always held the position that government has no business spending taxpayer money on any institution whose purpose is the promotion of religion of any kind.

A primary method of communication among freethinkers was the periodical. After the Civil War, there was a proliferation of publications, including the Boston Investigator, dating back to 1831, the Truthseeker, founded in 1873, in Peoria, Illinois, later relocating to New York City, Lucifer, the Light-Bearer in Topeka, Kansas, and the Iconoclast in Austin, Texas. Texas had a large freethought community, primarily due to the settlement of many German freethinkers who had left their country and came to America, after the revolutions of 1848.

Of all the various periodicals, the Truthseeker was the only one that had a national circulation. Its masthead proclaimed their mission of devoting its pages to “science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform, progression, free education, and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race.”

Close connections developed, particularly in the cities, between freethinkers and German Jews, like Felix Adler (see HMM-01), the founder of the Ethical Culture Society. The Truthseeker regularly covered Adler’s lectures, and held him in the highest regard.

By the late-nineteenth-century, freethought in the United States began to wane, and eventually decline. Its anti-religious views alienated many would-be sympathizers. Additionally, the explosion and influence of fundamentalist Christianity began to make inroads among the lower classes, and non-intellectuals. The lack of cohesive goals and beliefs contributed to freethought’s demise. By the early-twentieth-century, most Freethought congregations had disbanded or joined other mainstream churches. America’s expanding prosperity allowed religious hucksters to not only convince followers that they could “lay up treasure in heaven,” but also accumulate wealth here on earth. Also, fundamentalists and mainstream denominations had learned how to utilize the newest tools of communication to spread their messages widely. Novels like Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1924), a runaway best seller, portraying Jesus as the greatest salesman, advertising copywriter, and executive of all time, helped sell the message joining religious faith with financial prosperity.

My own freethinking journey

Many of us can locate cairns along life’s pathway. Many times these become formative, and often pivotal events in our human development. One such period for me was the summer of 2001.

In May of that year, I had left an employer somewhat hastily over some perceived slight. At that time in my life, it had become easier to change employers, than to address some of the personal issues in my own life that stood in the way of my development, particular the areas where I had some real abilities and skills.

One of the opportunities that the summer of 2001 afforded me was a lack of structure. While my income was sporadic at best, piecing together several incomes streams derived from a newspaper distribution gig that I had developed during my time with my former employer, it also allowed me to put in a garden, and spend my afternoons basking in a series of books that encouraged me to embark on a quest for knowledge I’ve been on ever since. You might call it my entrance into intellectualism, at least according to the definition set forth by Richard Hofstader. For Hofstadter, an intellectual is someone who “in some sense lives for ideas—which means he has a sense of dedication to the life of the mind which is very much like a religious commitment.”

Since that time, I’ve maintained a consistent practice of reading regularly. For most of the past eight years, I’ve regularly visited libraries, either the main branch, on Congress Street in Portland, and over the past few years, the Maine State Library in Augusta, checking out books several times per month. While I won’t always read a book from front to back cover, I’d say that in that period of time, I’ve easily familiarized myself with the ideas of 300 to 400 nonfiction books, basing it conservatively on having at least one book per week that I’m working my way through, and often, I have multiple books going at once.

Over that period of time, I’ve experienced exponential growth in my own understanding of issues. I’ve also found that often, it’s increasingly difficult to share many of the ideas and subjects from the books I’ve worked my way through with co-workers, friends, and family members, particularly if they’re wedded to ideology, or the status quo that greases much of the daily interaction in present day America. Too much of that interaction is bland, and numbingly superficial.

A new development in my quest to better utilize my limited time and increase my knowledge, while being able to access writers that have something to say, is now books on CD. This is a format that my wife has been a fan of for years, but one that I’ve been somewhat slow to embrace.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to some terrific authors, and several books that I otherwise would have missed out on. One of them was Nick Taylor’s book that I’ve mentioned in prior HMM posts. My latest one is Susan Jacoby’s, The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby is a wonderful, erudite writer. Her searing indictment of America’s addiction to infotainment, both on television and the web, and her ability to parallel it with other periods from America’s anti-intellectual past has been helpful.

Much of this information for this week’s HMM post came from Jacoby’s latest book, as well as her prior book, the equally engaging Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Additionally, I was able to find a copy of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, his classic from the early 1960s. I read it two summers ago, but found it helpful again in helping me put much of Jacoby’s material into a historical context. I also found Sidney Mead’s book, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America, also from the early 1960s, a great companion to my other reading.

As the old saying goes, onward, and upward!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

America the irrational

Populism is a term that still gets tossed around in political conversation, most often during election cycles. In today’s political world, where down is up, and bad is good, populism has been defanged, and neutered of much of its power, at least compared to historical populism, which constituted a real anger and backlash towards bankers and other corporate interests of the time, most often seen during the progressive era in America.

A case in point is someone like Rick Santelli, an editor on CNBC, creating political theater with his Thursday morning rant from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and being considered a “populist” in various quadrants of the mainstream media.

I think Wonkette accurately captured Santelli, and nailed his faux populism when she wrote that “Rick Santelli hates poor people — and by poor people we mean the bottom 50-90% of per capita income earners. How else would you explain the fact that he and his trader friends are *just now* starting to worry about Moral Hazard?” Preach it, sister!

Of course, to the 50 percent out there clinging to God and their guns, no appeal to reason or logic is 'gonna work. They refuse to listen to anything that gets in the way of their desperately held predispositions.

America, for all intents and purposes has become a superstitious, fundamentalist nation. How else would you explain that more than 1/3 of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nearly 6 in 10 believe that the portrayal of the Book of Revelation’s bloody massacre of all those who don’t accept Jesus as Messiah, will come true. Hence the amazing popularity of the Left Behind eries of books on end times prophecy.

Our entertainment media, while not necessarily promoting a particular brand of religion, seizes upon our nation’s belief in the supernatural—ghosts, the supernatural, angels and demons, and other forms of paranormal phenomena. More than half of the U.S. population believes in ghosts. Three quarters of Americans believe in angels and another four-fifths are down with miracles. I guess that explains why WCSH-6 had a news story last night on its six o’clock news about a group promoting the paranormal getting an audience before a group of kids at the Bangor Public Library.

As Susan Jacoby writes in her book, The Age of American Unreason, “Indeed popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous.”

While many on the left struggle to understand the appeal of demagogues like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and even Michael Savage, much of this emanates from our nation’s 40 year slide into an abyss that is characterized by intellectual laziness, and an almost obsessive need to have everything spoon-fed, and packaged, requiring no cerebral effort. Neither is this limited to those on the right. Many leftists and liberals are every bit as irrational, and anti-intellectual in their pursuit of truth, and supporting their beliefs.

Jacoby posits that what truly set apart our nation’s founding by the amazing group of men directly responsible for America’s birth, was the “presence and influence” of so many intellectuals among the Revolutionary generation. This amazing group of men, many of them signers of our Declaration of Independence, were truly remarkable in their respect for knowledge, and commitment to intellectual integrity. Today, intellectuals are regularly denigrated and marginalized as “pointy-headed.”

Sadly, many of the nitwits out there are fearful that Obama and Co. are going to turn America into a socialist nation, and take away their guns. Idiots like P.G. Douglas, from Darien, Connecticut fire off letters to the editor to the Wall Street Journal, denigrating historians like Alan Brinkley, when they try to put politics in a historical context.

The greatest danger facing our nation isn’t our economic downward spiral, crooked politicians, and the liberal media, it’s the abject intellectual vapidity of the man on the street.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Krugman says stimulus inadequate in size

Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University and also a Nobel Prize winner, was speaking this morning on CNBC, where he discussed his views on the stimulus package.

According to Krugman, the $787 billion stimulus is not nearly enough to fill the "well over $2 trillion hole" in the economy, Krugman said. "A fair bit of the bill is not really stimulus," he added, noting that just about $650 billion would actually spur consumer spending and other types of stimulus.

It is "pretty likely" that the Obama administration will try and pass a second stimulus package in the next few months, Krugman said.

Krugman added that the economy is likely to remain depressed for at least two years, but probably much longer than that.

I understand that "lefties" like Krugman must be discounted, at least if you've had your dose of right-wing Kool-aid today. I tend to consider people trained in economics, however, since that's not an area where I've had advance preparation. Then again, many right-wing talkers might be more believable, depending on your ideological persuasion. [speaking of right-wing talkers, JBS acolyte, GBeck begins today's show with a rant about a "socialist" company that makes solar panels that will apparently be receiving stimulus money. He's also ranting about "controlled burns," as in, let the economy experience"a controlled burn." Oh, here it comes, here it comes--the start of the rest of the broadcast (and what he does best), where he scares the bejesus out of his listeners--worldwide economic collapse, a Great Depression worse than our grandparents experienced, but because his loyal followers didn't sell out to socialism, capitalism will be stronger than ever, rooted in those great "principals" of conservatism! I'm sorry I can't share a link to today's broadcast, because Mr. Beck is an enlightened capitalist, so you have to pay to access his archived drivel.--JB]

Nicholas Von Hoffman, another "lefty" shares stories of the jobless in America, in the Feb. 4 issue of The Nation. He includes the following note about my home state: In Maine there are skilled carpenters knocking on doors, asking for any kind of work, shoveling snow or stacking firewood.

I wonder if the disconnect that talk radio talkers exhibit from the lives of real Americans stem from their sitting behind their golden microphones, rather than rubbing elbows with desperate people, thrown out work, through no fault of their own--like the gentleman I spoke to yesterday, Robert, who lost his job at a local manufacturer after working their for 19 years. This local manufacturer makes parts for the auto industry, and predictably, given Detroit's woes, their business is way down.

Monday, February 16, 2009

History Maker Mondays-06

Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.
--Henry David Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. He is widely regarded as one of America's most influential authors, philosophers and thinkers. At one time a Unitarian minister, Emerson left his pastorate because of doctrinal disputes with his superiors. He traveled to Europe on Christmas Day, 1832, where he made the acquaintance of such literary notables as Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle and Emerson would form a notable lifelong friendship.

My first brush with Emerson came during my junior year of high school. I had begun dating my wife and also had my first encounter with another intellectual giant, my late father-in-law, Joe Tarazewich.

The bookshelves of Tarazewich’s study were jammed full of books of philosophy, literary heavy hitters, and other classical thinkers. When we first start dating someone, we obviously want to make a good impression. Tarazewich was an intimidating figure—he had once played major college football for Drake and also was voted to Maine’s all-time high school football team of the past fifty years, making first team, when he played for Thornton Academy. Even as a cocky 17-year-old, I knew this giant of a man was someone important, even moving beyond my short-term goal of trying to impress him so I could continue dating his daughter.

He gave me a copy of Emerson’s essays, which I set out to read and understand. I was struck by Emerson’s essay on self-reliance. Coming from a very orthodox faith tradition, Roman Catholicism, and beginning to rebel against its strictures (much to my own parent’s consternation), reading Emerson felt like leaving a thick strand of trees, and walking out into an open field.

Emerson believed that the ultimate source of truth is within us. He believed in trusting one’s reason, and limiting the influence of the outside world. That didn’t mean that Emerson was a reclusive, intellectual hermit. He didn’t isolate himself from people, as indicated in a letter written to Carlyle, where Emerson said, “A new person is always to me a great event, & will not let me sleep."(Note 1) Updike wrote that “He lectured everywhere, and knew everyone." (Note 2)

The belief that all we can really know is within us is the foundation for what would become transcendentalism. As Emerson wrote, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” (note 3)

This movement originated in New England, specifically Boston, although Emerson would find a home in Concord. It began as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the intellectual culture existing at Harvard, as well as the doctrines of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Transcendentalists’ sought to integrate the belief that the ideal spiritual state “transcends” the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. This was a direct contradiction to the overriding influence of Calvinist theology that constituted American Christianity at that historical juncture.

American Transcendentalism (in addition to Emerson, other prominent transcendentalists and contemporaries were naturalist and rebel Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as Margeret Fuller, who served with Emerson as editor of The Dial) espoused a romantic idealism that favored individual instinct, self-knowledge, and a belief in transcendent, eternal ideas. This idea was rooted in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It was Coleridge, the British poet that lent the Transcendentalists the spiritual side of Kant’s system, when he (some would argue, misleadingly) reduced Kant’s theory of human cognition to a dichotomy between Reason, and Understanding. A pious Anglican, Coleridge argued Reason—that which separates us from all other living things—reveals to humanity the mysteries of the Christian faith. (note 4)

This led the New England Transcendentalists in seeing the reflection of God, in human Reason. While many continued to hold the Calvinist belief in the divine nature of Jesus Christ, some, especially Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau, considered his ministry to be the representation of the best of humanity.

While Unitarians today consider Emerson as one of their own, history teaches us that he was at the center of a major schism that had developed within Unitarianism in the 19th century. The Transcendentalists, led by Emerson, argued against the significance of historically based miracles in the Bible.

Given that the Unitarians controlled many of the conservative Congregational churches in New England, bastions of Calvinist orthodoxy at the time, to depart from the most conservative of beliefs, such as miracles, might lead to them losing their institutional control of their churches. Hence, they opposed the Transcendentalists’ push to deny this element of theology.

Reform-minded Unitarians—many of them being younger members of the denomination, and not part of the fight to gain control of the congregational churches—were open to crossing conservative theological lines. They had read Emerson's book Nature and were attracted to his ideas, ideas that stated that “Man is a god in ruins,” and that man should be self-reliant and follow his intuition and feelings as well as his reason to reach full self-development. Like Emerson, they thought that dried-up doctrines of an earlier time should not get in the way of original insights.

In 1838, the seven graduating seniors of the Harvard Divinity School selected Emerson as keynote speaker at their graduation, passing over older and more conservative Unitarians. The invitation was an act of defiance against their elders and teachers, and Emerson was well aware of it. With the chapel filled with the graduates and their families and all the most noted Unitarians in attendance that beautiful July day, Emerson took the pulpit and calmly and confidently lay siege to some of the Unitarians’ most cherished ideas.

While innocuous by today’s standards, Emerson called for religious self-reliance, and urged those in attendance not to depend on the worn-out doctrines passed down but to seek out our own convictions. To the hearers and those reading it in the newspapers of the day, however, the address was pure transcendental heresy.

Emerson’s address ignited a furor in newspapers, pulpits, and pamphlets against the talk and Emerson was roundly and regularly condemned.

The controversy found Emerson retreating to his study, quite calm and above the storm, and refused to respond publicly. He called the fuss “a tempest in a washbowl,” (note 5) but his journal shows us today that he was upset by the vehemence of the attacks against him. Repeatedly he wrote in his journal, “Steady, steady!”

Emerson's former Harvard professor, Andrews Norton, usually a cautious and sober man, wasted no time blasting the address in the Boston Daily Advertiser. He called the graduates accessories to a crime for inviting a “man who attacks Christians and the Clergy” to “deliver an incoherent rhapsody.”

The importance of Emerson’s ideas for our time shouldn’t be discounted. During his time, a time when print was the primary means to disseminate ideas, he urged independent thinking and stressed that not all life’s answers are found in books. In his The American Scholar address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge in 1837, Emerson states that: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” He believed that a scholar learns best by engaging life.

I’m afraid many that live a stunted life, seeking through the pursuits of prooftexting, and securing points for their preconceived notions, will miss the value of Emerson. In his essays on The Conduct of Life, he outlined a pathway for “engaging life.” To Emerson, thinking was the hardest kind of work. I think he was accurate in his statement of this fact. Additionally, he spoke highly of the value and the importance of work, as a means to leaving behind a life worth living. He spoke of the importance of “those who love work, and love to see it rightly done, who finish their task for its own sake; and the state and the world is happy, that has the most of such finishers. The world will always do justice at last to such finishers; it cannot do otherwise.”

My hope is that some of my readers, regardless of political ideology, will seek out Emerson, and learn from some of his timeless ideas.



1 Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance, by Kenneth S. Sacks; Princeton University Press, 2003
² John Updike, “Emersonianism,” New Yorker, 4 June, 1984, 115
3 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” an essay.
4 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People; Yale University Press, 1973 5 Kenneth Sacks, ibid.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday night vocab lesson-Brainyflix

A group of MIT alums are trying to make SAT prep fun and free for all. The MIT Alumni Association is allowing them to run a SAT Vocab Video Contest as a charity event by MIT.

Corporate sponsor,, is funding the prize award and incentives.

Tonight's word: Abridge

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The stroke

It was tempting this morning to make yet another futile attempt to help half of America, most of them part of the rabid right, understand that the passage of the Obama stimulus package isn’t the end of civilization, or the start of some sinister, socialist takeover of the United States. I made the mistake of turning on our local right-wing AM blowtorch, WGAN, and John McDonald’s Saturday program. As a Maine storyteller, McDonald is quite compelling. But his weekend alter ego sees morph into just another right-wing shill, a poor man's imitation of Rush Limbaugh. I even called in, but then I came to my senses. It’s Valentine’s Day and Mary and I are headed out later, to learn the tango. Tohell with politics, at least for now.

Instead, I think I’ll update you about Bernie. For those of you new to my blog, Bernie, my trusty 13 and soon-to-be 14-year old Sheltie is doing remarkably better. For those who don’t have a dog, or aren’t dog people, you won’t understand the bond that develops between dog owners and their pets. It’s no accident that saying “dog’s are a man’s (and woman’s) best friend” is accepted as canonical.

Four weeks ago, Bernie had a stroke. It happened in the middle of the night. He had been restless all night and woke us about midnight, by throwing up, first in our son’s former room (now my office) across the hall, and then next to our bed. When we got up, and turned the light on, it was obvious poor Bernie (aka, “The Mayor,” or “Mr. Schmellie”) was in obvious distress. He was disoriented, stumbling badly, and quite agitated, breathing heavily. All we could do was clean up his mess, try to comfort him as well as we could, pat him and then take turns on the floor with him. It was a long five hours until the alarm notified us of another day of work.

I heard one time that most dogs recognize about 30 words. Bernie, before he lost his hearing completely about 18 months ago, seemed to know twice that many. When he was gradually going deaf, our biggest fear was that he’d lose his gregariousness and personality. In order to ensure that didn’t happen, Mary and I spent more time interacting with Bernie than ever—patting him, giving him hugs, and letting him know he was loved and doing our best not to startle him, which is hard, when you have a dog that is deaf.

[Bernie, sound asleep on the couch]

Bernie sleeps alongside our bed, on the carpet. Now, when he wakes up in the morning, often about 4:30, he’ll shake his head, stretch, walk out into the hall, and then make his way back into the darkness, going first to my wife’s side of the bed, nosing alongside the mattress to see if she’s awake. Being a heavier sleeper than I am, given my “bionic” ears, I’m awake and eventually Bernie makes his way over and gets his head rubbed, which he usually expects about five minutes worth, and then he’ll go back to sleep for another 20 minutes, or so, until the alarm goes off at 5:00. While Bernie was always friendly, and enjoyed being rubbed and spending time in close proximity to family members, his deafness has made him much more affectionate in a way that he wasn’t before. Now, like a cat, he rubs up against our hands, and arms if we cease with the affection as if to say, “please don’t stop—I like it.”

Just after Bernie’s stroke, we read as much as we could about strokes in dogs, and one of the common threads we found was that dogs often recover and show improvement in 2-3 weeks. Given that Bernie was struggling to stay upright, and even struggled to eat, one of the things he lived for that didn’t seem very optimistic, but we clung to that timeframe with hope.

A vital dog with limitless energy, and one that loved being outdoors, even during winter’s coldest and snowiest times, now, it was a struggle for Bernie to not topple over on the ice, or get blown over in the wind.

Our son, Mark, Mr. Everyday Yeah, actually posted a couple of humorous takes on Bernie’s situation. Mark, in his inimitable way, took something negative, or sad, and made Mary and I both laugh with his section he called “Dear Bernie,” written as letters to his dog.

I’m happy to say that four weeks after Bernie’s stroke, he’s made remarkable improvement. Just after suffering his stroke, his head had an odd cock to one side, and he was unable to navigate the stairs, without falling back down. This necessitated some alterations, like carrying him up and down the stairs every evening and morning (the things we do for our pets) and installing a gate at the top, as well as barricading the bottom of the stairs, so he wouldn’t injure himself trying to go up and down.

I’ve been walking Bernie up and down our 300 foot driveway, as well as taking a few strolls on our road. Given the snow conditions and lack of shoulder room, and the usual assortment of speeding drivers, I was hesitant to take him out on our roadway in the morning, in the dark, or after work during the week. Last weekend, we walked a ½ mile and Bernie did quite well. His gait has been getting steadier, and in fact, he has started going up and down the outdoor steps, which are three in number, with a semblance of his old self. Just the other night, he made it up the stairs to the second floor landing, on his own, without hesitation. Yesterday morning, he came down with little difficulty.

This morning, we took a walk of just over a mile, after sunrise. Bernie had his swagger back, walking rapidly, doing his usual investigations along the sides of the road, and at times, forcing me to walk rapidly to keep up. He seems to be 90-95 percent back to normal, pre-stroke.

Closing in on the 14-year mark, we know that Bernie won’t be with us forever. But we’re thankful that he’s recovered from something that we feared might be the end for him.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Countering stimulus lies

Sara Robinson's done the hard work and provided talking points on the stimulus plan over at Blog for OurFuture.

Robinson writes, You can tell just how terrified they are: If this thing passes—and especially, God and Alan Greenspan forbid, if it actually works, even a little bit—it's going to discredit their entire model of how the economic world works. Because the battle over the stimulus package is nothing less than the battle for all the marbles, their Big Lie factory is working overtime, cranking out specious new absurdities on an almost daily basis.

Oh, and she's got Zandi's chart, indicating return on investment for each $1 dollar of stimulus invested, which I've posted below:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dirty bombs in Belfast

An apparently leaked FBI “Field Intelligence Group” report displayed by a global Web site indicates materials for a “dirty bomb” were found at the home of James Cummings in Belfast following his Dec. 9 death.

The Web site published a document that carries a banner that reads “Unclassified//For Official Use Only//Law Enforcement Sensitive” and “FBI Field Intelligence Groups.” The report was first published in the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Maine State Police have said Cummings, 29, was shot and killed inside his home on High Street by his wife, Amber, 31, in the presence of their 9-year-old daughter.

[The residence in Belfast where materials to make a dirty bomb were found, and site of an ongoing FBI investigation.]

Amber Cummings was interviewed by police after the shooting and released later that day with no charges being filed against her. She is reportedly living in the Belfast area.

From the report, apparantly Cummings was very upset with Barack Obama being elected president. According to the deceased's wife, Cummings had been in contact with white supremacist groups. He also had made application to join the National Socialist Movement (Nazi organization).

It's ironic that with all the attention paid to "outside threats" like Islamofascism (Hannity, Savage), and illegal immigration (Lou Dobbs), scant attention is given to domestic terrorists, which is what Cummings may have been.

One site that has been actively chronicling the various threats posed by domestic terrorists, and white hate groups, has been Orcinus, maintained by Seattle-based freelance journalist, David Neiwert.

Neiwert's site is worth spending some time at. It's one of the few blogs that connects the consequences resulting from the rantings of right-wing talk radio.

While it's easy to dismiss the Cummings shooting, particularly given the subsequent small town media coverage its garnered, typically positioned as the act of a lone kook. But, when put into the context of a series of incidents well document by Neiwert, I think it warrants a bit more concern and vigilence.

I'm very aware of some of the loose cannons that dot Maine's landscape, many of them heavily armed, and given the necessary means for motivation, could pose significant danger to individuals that don't subscribe to their twisted ideology.

Public transportation and economic stimulus

Local public transportation projects need federal assistance, if they’re able to continue offering services to area communities.

Take for instance the city of Lewiston. One of only a handful of communities in Maine that has anything resembling a public transit system, it remains an ongoing struggle to update its fleet, and do what’s necessary to remain viable.

There are significant philosophical divisions between many Democrats and others that favor more mass transit, and conservatives that oppose public transit, as well as almost anything else it seems, except tax cuts for the wealthy.

One of the elements in the original House version of the stimulus package was transportation, and in particular, light rail. That element, among many others, is in danger of being removed, or significantly reduced.

Communities in rural states, like Maine, have a much greater reliance on one person/one car models of transportation. This mode of transportation puts lower income residents at a significant disadvantage in the job market, particularly during economic downturns like the current one, even if they are able to improve their employability skills. Two of the biggest obstacles to moving someone from welfare, back to work are transportation, as well as child care, or the lack of affordable options.

Derrick Z. Jackson, columnist for the Boston Globe wrote that, “The stimulus package should boldly be stimulating public transportation. Based on the American Automobile Association estimates of driving costs, the American Public Transportation Association calculates that Americans who rely on public transportation can save $8,368 a year. Boston leads the United States in calculated annual savings, at $12,285.”

The Progressive has a fairly provocative article on the "The Myth of the Efficient Car,” a myth that liberals enjoy trotting out when they talk about a “green” economy.

While states like Maine lack the infrastructure, and population density to adopt large scale models of public transit, light rail, particularly a commuter line from Portland to Brunswick, and even Lewiston might work, particularly when and if we see $4/gallon gasoline again.

I like my car as much as anyone, and rely upon it for my job. However, the 21st century is about "learning, unlearning, and relearning," to paraphrase Toffler. It's time that we relearn some new models of moving Americans from point A, to point B.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

History Maker Mondays-05

What experience and history teach is this -- that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles.
--George Wilhelm Hegel

The true import of FDR’s legacy is fading from the American consciousness. As the few remaining Americans possessing any firsthand experience of the Great Depression pass away, we’re left with many remarkable written accounts and thorough works on his life, his politics and policies, as well as other aspects of the New Deal, and his presidency.

Last week, I referenced Kenneth S. Davis’s very thorough, as well as remarkably readable account of the New Deal years, from 1933-1937. This week, I’d like to pick up with Davis, and augment it with Nick Taylor’s equally solid account of FDR’s Works Progress Administration.

Taylor’s book, American-Made: When FDR Put The Nation To Work, details the period of time just after the stock market crash, when the nation was plunged into an economic death spiral. I detailed just how severe this was in last week’s HMM post, and Hoover’s inability to move beyond standard Republican, keep the budget balanced measures in addressing record unemployment, and economic devastation.

While Roosevelt relied upon educators to develop his plans for putting the country back on the right track, it was his appointment of practical men, individuals with no university connections whatever, to implement his ideas. Harry Hopkins was one of the latter.

Harry Hopkins: Connecting with FDR

Harry Hopkins was a social worker by training. Iowa-born, Hopkins’ father, David, was born in Bangor, Maine, but the family moved west after the Civil War. While prospecting for gold in South Dakota, he met and married Anna Pickett, a school teacher.

Mrs. Hopkins was a devout Methodist, and became active in the Methodist Missionary Society, in Sioux City, where the Hopkins lived when Harry was born. Later, they would move to Council Bluffs, Kearney and then Hastings in Nebraska, and then, David moved the family to Chicago for two years, which allowed him to have a home base in the center of his sales territory, working for a wholesale harness company.

After David Hopkins was struck by a horse-drawn truck, resulting in a broken leg and lost wages, he sued the driver and won an out of court settlement of $10,000. Half of the award went to Hopkins’ lawyer, and the other half allowed Hopkins to move the family to Grinnell, Iowa, where he bought a harness store to run. As the demand for harnesses, and other horse-related implements waning, Hopkins added newspapers, candy, and sold cigarettes under the counter. He became immensely popular with the Grinnell College students, and it was said that he knew more of them by their first names than did the college president.

Mrs. Hopkins had approved of her husband’s move to Grinnell, because of the exceptional education that the community offered. Harry would later attend Grinnell, graduating in 1912 with a degree in social work. Just prior to graduation, unsure of his future, one of his professors, Dr. Steiner, showed Hopkins a telegram asking if the professor could recommend a Grinnell student to work at the Christodora camp for poor children, near Bound Brook, New Jersey.

Hopkins had no real intention of making a career in social work, but jumped at the opportunity to go east, particularly enamored of settling in New York City.

While Hopkins had known poverty growing up in the Midwest, he was somewhat bewildered by his first contacts with products of the East Coast slums. The poor folks he knew back home had involved the maintenance of a dignity and self-respect that was lacking in the products of the city slums he was to come into contact with. Hunger, squalor, and degradation were new experiences for Hopkins. However, he had inherited his mother’s missionary impulse and it wasn’t long before Hopkins became a zealous advocate for the underprivileged which he’d never lose during his career in government.

Hopkins, rejected for the draft and service in WWI, because of a bad eye, moved to Atlanta, where the American Red Cross as director of Civilian Relief, for their Gulf Division, where he remained for five years.

In 1922, he returned to New York, and became the general director of the New York Tuberculosis Association (later the Tuberculosis and Health Administration).

Hopkins first met Roosevelt in 1928, when the future president was running for governor. It was during the presidential campaign, and Hopkins had been impressed by Roosevelt’s “Happy Warrior” nominating speech on behalf of candidate Alfred Smith. Smith was Hopkins’ idol, and meeting Roosevelt was a bonus for him.

Later, Hopkins’ work was coming to be noticed by Roosevelt’s friends, and in particular, Mrs. Roosevelt, who took an active interest in welfare work.

When Roosevelt set up the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (T.E.R.A.) as governor of New York, it would be the precursor to many of his future New Deal programs. T.E.R.A. was the largest and most daring program ever set up for the relief of unemployment by a state. Many of Roosevelt’s friends and political confidants secretly believed it was doomed to fail. Roosevelt intended to ask William Hodsdon, of the Russell Sage Foundation, to head up T.E.R.A. When Hodsdon asked friends and advisors about the appointment, they advised him to turn it down, which he did. Roosevelt then turned to Hopkins, and he enthusiastically accepted.

During his two-year tenure at T.E.R.A., Hopkins fulfilled his duties the way that Roosevelt liked best: imaginatively, speedily, and giving the least possible amount of trouble to Roosevelt himself.

Like many in those dark and uncertain days, the return of prosperity was always “just around the corner,” or so everyone hoped. Hopkins, not sure how long his T.E.R.A. duties would last, continued on at the Tuberculosis and Health Association. As he continued in his relief role, he became less sure his new job was going to be “temporary.”

Hopkins: Chief Apostle of the New Deal

Hopkins hoped that he’d receive an invitation to be part of the new administration. Instead, he was bypassed, as Roosevelt assembled his “brains trust” of Raymond Moley, Rexford G. Tugwell, and Adolf Berle. Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s close friend and most intimate advisor was added, as was Henry Morenthau, Jr., another close friend.

The man who came to be regarded as the administration’s most sinister figure, “a backstairs intriguer, an Iowan combination of Machiavelli, Svengali, and Rasputin (from Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, by Robert Sherwood), didn’t join the administration until May 22, day 79, of FDR’s famous “First Hundred Days.”

Appointed to head up the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) as chief administrator, Hopkins assumed the task of making sure that relief was, 1) decentralized and local in character, and 2) work, rather than idleness on the dole, was preferred.

The Washington Post headline that accompanied Hopkins first day on the job read, “Money Flies,” stating that “the half-billion dollars for direct relief of States won’t last a month if Harry L. Hopkins, new relief administrator, maintains the pace he set yesterday in disbursing more than $5,000,000 during his first two hours in office.”

When asked about his first day and if he planned to continue like that, he answered, “I’m not going to last six months here, so I’ll do as I please.”

Tasked by Roosevelt to get relief to people who needed it and to have no truck with politicians, that’s exactly how Hopkins proceeded.

Hopkins believed that relief was entirely nonpartisan, and would continue acting on that principle for a long time. Eventually, however, when this initial period of “soaring altruism” ended, and Republican opposition regained a foothold, making elections harder to win, Hopkins had to temper that sentiment.

From FERA, Hopkins then ran the Civilian Works Administration (CWA), and then, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The Works Progress Administration became the New Deal’s largest agency. Until it was closed down by Congress in 1943, the various programs of the WPA employed 8.5 million people in its seven-year history. In all, the WPA built or repaired 1.2 million miles of culverts and nearly 600,000 miles of highways, streets and roads, as well as laying 24,000 miles of sidewalks. It constructed or restored more than 110,000 public libraries, schools, auditoriums, stadiums and other public buildings. It build 256 new airports and fixed 385 more, built 880 sewage treatment plants and repaired 395, spanned rivers, creeks, and gullies with some 75,266 bridges and viaducts, laid 22,790 miles of sewerage lines, and dug 770 municipal swimming pools. All of this prompted a congressman to say in 1940 that “…it sounds almost like the accomplishments of King Solomon.” There isn’t a city or county in America that was not touched in some way by the WPA.

While critics abound today, citing the WPA as a case study of big government run amok, it’s rare to find anyone who got a job, and left relief, who speaks poorly of the program. It put people back to work, gave them hope, and put food on the tables of countless American families.

In addition to helping put Americans back to work, The WPA was also an example of Keynesian economic theories in action. When first instituted, the program cut unemployment roles, and helped prime the nation’s economic pump. The economy began to recover slowly in 1935, and well into 1936. However, Republicans, upset by the deficit spending required to meet the needs of WPA, began to dig in their heels, and fight Hopkins’ requests for funding. As cuts were made, the unemployment rate jumped back to 19 percent in early 1937. The unprimed economic pump began sucking air, just as Hopkins and his fellow Keynesians had predicted.

When Roosevelt delivered his fifth state of the union address in January, 1938, he indicated that he had backed away from a balanced budget for the coming year. He indicated that he was “as anxious as any banker, or industrialist, or businessman, or investor, or economist, that the budget of the United States government be brought into balance as quickly as possible, he would not permit any needy American who can and is willing to work to starve, because the federal government does not provide the work (through the WPA).” Roosevelt hinted that the blame for the shrinking economy rested with business, which was preventing expansion, by not investing in new plants, a political strike at his administration, attempting to undermine his programs.

It’s difficult not to see many parallels between what was being debated back in 1938, as a means to move the nation forward, and our current debate surrounding the Obama stimulus package. While it would be naïve to assume that our current economic problems are identical to the country’s 70 years ago, the same kind of partisan rancor and political point making has the same potential to derail our own economic recovery, just as it did back in 1938.

Ideologues make blanket statements impugning Roosevelt, in a weak attempt to tie the efforts of our current president to him. By assigning labels of “socialist,” “tax and spend liberal” and other monikers, these are designed to demonize good faith efforts to utilize stimulus and infrastructure improvement as tools to get the economy back on track. Doing so only reveals their lack of a historical foundation for their charges. Neither is this new. FDR was actually a political pragmatist, and too conservative for the likes of Huey Long, and Sinclair Lewis among others. Father Coughlin, the 1930s equivalent of right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh was first a supporter of New Deal policies, and then, a bitter critic.

Taking the time, the past few months, to educate myself about FDR, the New Deal, and other programs that helped pull America out of its economic darks days, has given me a much firmer foundation about what’s true, and what’s not. It also has grounded me in a way that only happens when you do the work yourself, and don’t rely on demagogues and political hucksters for your information.

The earth is flat

From Josh Marshall's TPM, this past Thurday:

This week, out on the broad wastes of cable news drekdom and the uplands of Beltway journalistic drivel, a simple fact has gone almost entirely unreported: virtually everything congressional Republicans are saying about the Stimulus Bill wouldn't cut it in remedial economics. Not that there aren't legitimate policy differences and criticisms to be made of the outline plan before Congress.

But to call the complaints “policy differences” would be to engage in what that old president used to call the soft bigotry of low expectations, as though a political party with as legitimately proud a history as the GOP could not be expected to produce more than economic illiterates.

The ground under our feet might feel firmer if this were just standard order rhetorical abuse. But the truth of it is genuinely frightening, especially since these fellows are planted in Congress rather than on one of the sidewalk corners in Union Square ranting about Socialism and Fluoride or Lyndon LaRouche.

LaRouchies indeed!

Marshall sees flickers that the tide may be turning.

While Marshall hammers these “flat earthers” on their economics, a new History Maker Monday hits the blog tomorrow (or possibly late tonight), making the historical case for reality-based policymaking.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

In search of our better natures

The other day I was labeled a “pompous ass” in a cross-posting tête-à-tête with a fellow blogger. My crime—calling attention to a spelling mistake he made while offering a critique of a best-selling author. I'll accept the charge.

His response that I should “lighten up” has been a refrain that I’ve heard throughout my life. My tendency to see things as they should be, versus how they are often accepted, has been a burden I’ve carried with me for as long as I can remember. The desire for people, organizations, and even governments, to respond in ways that reveal their better natures has been a theme I’ve pursued, not to be a killjoy, but because I think that anything we engage in is worth an honest effort, and a striving to be better.

For much of my life, the irony of my tendency towards criticism in others was an inability to respond to critique in my own life. As a result, while much of what I brought to the attention of bosses at work, family members, coworkers, and even so-called religious authorities was honest in its revelation of mistakes and their obvious misdeeds, the inability to “remove the log from my own eye” often diminished the force of my appraisal, or exposition. It also probably contributed to others disliking me, or at least thinking I was a “pompous ass.”

Part of the reinvention that’s become my life the past decade has been a much more honest self-appraisal, as well as a tendency to tone down, or take more time reflecting, before launching a missive about the shortcomings of others. Occasionally, however, I can’t help myself and my snarky side gets the better of me.

It is my opinion that Americans (I speak of America, rather than the world, because that’s the geography that I know experientially, which is what I know best) struggle with self-reflection, particularly if that mode is introduced via the critique of others, regardless of how constructively, or how gentle the spirit with which it is offered. The past eight years, Americans have been able to look into a national mirror, as our own president has modeled that inability to admit mistakes, reconsider actions, and learn from his imperfections.

We’re at an interesting juncture as a nation. The sins that have been magnified, and have had a deadly affect upon us, physically and psychically—greed and pride—have visited an economic calamity on many Americans. There are few, in fact that haven’t been affected in some way from the crisis that is rooted in a belief that things were going to continue to get better and better, in every way.

Nowhere is that point driven home more powerfully than in Florida. George Packer, in this week’s New Yorker, has an article, aptly titled, “The Ponzi State,” because the state’s entire building boom, and development feeding frenzy, was built upon a growth machine that was entirely propped up—not by higher education or high-paying professional jobs (or even the production of goods)—but by an unsustainable model of real estate, and sunshine; basically the selling of Florida. As one of Packer’s subjects, David Reed, an investment fund manager said, “Our growth is all about population growth. When you take that away, what have you got?”

It’s interesting how Florida epitomizes the politics and economics of the past eight years so accurately. A state where low tax rates have been elevated to holy writ (Packer points out that Florida is only one of nine states in the U.S. without a state income tax). For the purposes of balance, I will point out that California, with the nation’s highest income tax is also experiencing economic difficulties of a somewhat different nature. In addition to no state income tax, former governor, Jeb Bush, gutted the taxes levied on corporations, and financial transactions, through exemptions and loopholes. As a consequence, the state is swimming in red ink now that the bottom has fallen out of the real estate market.

I remember in March of 2003, sitting at a ball field in Homestead, Florida, watching our son’s (it is Mr. EDY that I owe my New Yorker subscription to--nice when our children know us well enough to select perfect gifts) college baseball team during his freshman year, and seeing clouds of dust off in the distance. Later, after the game was over, curious about the dust plumes, my wife and I rode out the access road, cutting through the middle of what had been a swamp teaming with god knows what just five years before, and found not one, or two new subdivisions, but literally, 20 new housing complexes, with signs advertising homes from $99,000 to $200,000, all with exotic names, sitting on swampland that was being filled in by the dump truck load, with houses going up the next day. I’m sure the values of these homes doubled, or even tripled over the next few years.

The following two springs, Mary and I boarded a jet and left winter behind for 10 days, when we became spring training baseball gypsies following our son, and the Wheaton baseball squad, while domiciled on Clearwater Beach. When we weren’t at ballgames, we drove the surrounding area, in and around neighboring Hillsborough County, one of the counties that Packer writes extensively about. Since the tournament that Wheaton was playing in was the Tampa Bay Invitational, some of our games were played in downtown Tampa, at the University of Tampa.

One couldn’t help but be amazed at the high rises dotting the downtown skyline of Tampa. Coming from the north, and having spent time in an ancient (in American terms) like Boston, and even Chicago, Tampa had the feel of having risen overnight. Gleaming glass and steel was everywhere. There was this palpable feeling of vigor and I imagined this is what pioneers might have experienced when they made their way west, 150 years prior. I recall having discussions with my better half about possibly leaving our cold winters, and sluggish economy behind, and join the millions flocking to Florida each year, in search of gold. Packer’s article drove home the point that we were wise, or maybe our own lack of the financial means to up and leave Maine probably worked in our favor.

Personal growth requires the ability to face up to one’s faults, and find ways to transcend them. Sometimes that requires admitting that the same way of doing things has never worked, so change becomes the requirement. Not many people enjoy coming face to face with their shortcomings. I don’t know any other way to grow as a human being, however, than to embrace change, and self-improvement.

I wonder if by extension, a national plan of self-improvement might also be possible.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Some newsdays are better than others

[From Jeff Jarvis, at BuzzMachine]

One of the more head-scratching solutions papers are clawing at to save themselves is eliminating a day or two of print, as these Ohio papers are doing on Tuesdays. It’s ridiculous to say that’s a no-news day. But what this really does is make a lie of the supposed necessity of printing the news. Printing is merely a commercial convenience, it says. Tuesday is merely the first domino.

Maine's largest daily, the might Portland Press Herald, is so thin on Mondays, it resembles a broadsheet. Come to think of it, the paper's not much better the rest of the week, and even the vaunted Sunday edition lacks previous girth and substance.

Not sure how many caught yesterday morning's great feature on NPR's Morning Edition, about the importance of daily newspapers, and in particular, the Hartford Courant. Listen here. For those without audio, here's the print version.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hitting 700

I’ve been blogging here at Words Matter since November 2004. I actually had a blog prior to this one in 2003/2004. This post is another milestone of sorts, as it is my 700th post. It feels like I should be doing something more than sitting here with my laptop, Bruins game on with sound off, and a lukewarm can of Bud Light next to me.

As a writer, I’m not a household name, but when it comes to writing persistence and doggedness, my track record’s a solid one. While other bloggers have larger audiences, and many get much more traffic on the comment side, I feel proud that most of my posting has been original writing, with a minimum of cut and paste material culled from elsewhere.

I originally started blogging as a way to perfect my craft, and as Stephen King advises in his book, On Writing, the best way to improve as a writer is to write (my paraphrase, but true to his vision). I’ve continued to do that.

When I first started getting serious about writing, back in 2002, I started to think of myself as a writer (even before my first published writing clip) when I began to enjoy writing for the sheer joy that came with getting words down on paper (or better, a Word doc).

Once again, it’s King that said, in relation to practicing one’s craft, “Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.”

That captures it for me.

Looking back over the last four plus years, here is a timeline of my Words Matter posts.

Post #1-November 21, 2004: I took an article by Lakoff to talk about progressive values. Nothing particularly profound, but I was on my way.

Post #100-February 23, 2005: Titled “Hurting Children,” it was a riff on the Bush administration’s lack of concern for children, using a column by the late Molly Ivins (one of my fave columnists, and someone I miss reading) for my context.

Post #200-August 8, 2005: A post about my son and his generosity. I had blown my old speakers on my 18-year-old stereo, and Mark, knowing my love and passion for music, surprised me by buying some new speakers for me, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

While I don’t spend too much time blogging about the family, they do show up from time to time in posts.

Post #300-March 6, 2006: Michael Eric Dyson is a gifted writer, speaker, and commentator. He also knows a boatload about rap and hip-hop. This post was about an NPR broadcast where Dyson was waxing eloquent about Tupac Shakur, someone I knew little about beyond the stereotype.

Here is some of what I wrote: “Dyson’s historical perspective, political understanding and sympathetic treatment of Shakur revealed a totally different character than I’d been conditioned to view him as. It made me realize that I have a lot to learn about this branch music and culture. From Shakur’s roots, informed by Reaganomics and the accompanying poverty he experienced, Dyson’s presentation cast Shakur in a much different light than he was often portrayed by the press and the music industry. Dyson's talk was informative for the honest and refreshing way that he was able to demystify Shakur, who like many performers and cultural icons, ends up misrepresented, most often to cultivate an image, which will then be exploited through marketing.”

Post # 500-December 27, 2006: A post about Maine’s media landscape, drawing upon an opinion piece by fellow Maine blogger, Lance Dutson, who is now the new media guru for Senator Susan Collins. Dutson was taking issue with a column by Jeannine Guttman, editor of Maine’s largest daily newspaper, the Portland Press Herald.

Guttman has been a regular subject of Words Matter posts about issues I’ve had with her guidance of the Press Herald.

Occasionally, I’ve gone after other folks via my posts. There have been times this has gotten me in trouble, or at least got the attention of my subject, and I’ve received an email taking me to task.

A post I wrote about Guttman, the Press Herald, and an ad I thought was anti-Semetic, developed by a local marketer named Kimberly McCall generated a flurry of comments (8 comments for me is considered a flurry), and even an email from McCall’s husband, basically saying I misrepresented his wife.

Another time, I took NPR’s Adam Davidson to task for what I thought was shitty feature on Skowhegan that highlighted how the national media, more often than not, gets Maine (and rural America) wrong, because they always get the culture wrong. Davidson, for whatever reason, took offense with what I wrote and emailed me. I ended up moderating my views a bit, and posted a follow-up piece, apologizing for some of my unprofessional comments about Davidson, and his ability as a journalist.

Some of my best blogging was done in a multi-part series of blogs about big-box development. "Big-box Bait and Switch, Parts I, II, and III," used Stacy Mitchell’s Big Box Swindle:The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses as the framework, to rail against non-sustainable big-box development, and Maine’s business leaders that support this kind of toxic growth strategy.

I wrote Part I back in June of 2007, and given what’s happened to our economy, and in particular, the retail sector, I’d say I was quite prescient in my three posts.

Along the way, I’ve managed to write two books, assume a demanding day job, and experience a few bumps in the road where my energy for blogging has waned. I even contemplated deep-sixing Words Matter at one point. I’m glad I didn’t.

I think my writing is better now than it ever was. It’s hard to have every post be top shelf quality writing, given that many of the posts that I put up during the week are composed in the evening, after a long day of work, or the early hours, prior to work. But enough of what I throw up has relevance, I think.

Additionally, I have a blog for work, and I’m now well past the 100 post mark at Working in Maine. Generally, I’m pleased with almost everything I write.

A new feature I launched in January is History Maker Mondays, which requires some real work to make these posts worthwhile. So far, I’ve been able to get up a new post, several of considerable length, every Monday. I hope I can keep this going, as I’m enjoying expanding my own knowledge of history, and I hope readers learn a thing or two in reading my posts.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to 1,000, but for now, I’m enjoying the process, and I plan to ride it as long as I have something to say.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Newspapers vs. blogs

Jason Preston has an interesting post at Eat Sleep Publish on the false either, or dichotomy of newspaper vs. blogs.

He's commenting on a piece by a writer named Emily White, who complains that art and theater critics are being kicked to the curb at major dailies, while sports pages never receive any cutbacks. White goes on to criticize bloggers, falsely assigning quality to all things print.

Preston parries:

It is both incredibly difficult and unbelievably important to get past the preconception that something published online is inherently less good than something that sits in ink on real paper. In fact, the internet is a far more meritocratic medium than anything ever before it: unlike anywhere else, your work stands for itself.

I no longer subscribe to a local daily, after having two delivered to my door for nearly two decades. The reason; lack of content.

On Sunday, my better half returned from the supermarket with the week's groceries, and also the Maine Sunday Telegram. A publication that used to occupy well over an hour on a Sunday morning, and 2-3 cups of joe, was easily digested in 10-15 minutes and quickly deposited in the newspaper recycling bin, most likely becoming firestarter the next time I fire up the woodstove.

I've unintentionally become someone that gets my news online. I don't feel any less informed, either. In fact, I can spend 30 minutes in the morning, before work, check a few financial sites at noon, and do an evening scan of key sites like Alltop and my jones for solid journalism is satiated.

Any other longtime newspaper folks forsaking the fishwrap for the interwebs?

Monday, February 02, 2009

History Maker Mondays-04

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)
--Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”

Know Thy History

There is a shared belief among some, particularly those accepting the premise that an understanding of who we are as Americans and a knowledge of our past are essential to the kind of common civic memory that ensures a strong and vibrant democracy. I would put myself firmly in that camp.

Back in 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) commissioned the Roper organization to poll college seniors at 55 of the countries top liberal arts colleges and research universities. Their questions were to be based on U.S. history and the nation’s founding principals. The questions, not remarkably difficult, or so it was thought, were drawn from a basic high school curriculum, with many of the questions being the same ones used on the National Assessment of Educations Progress (NAEP) tests that are given to high school students.

How did these seniors, from America’s top schools do? They flunked. Four out of five seniors, 81 percent of them, got grades of D, or F. They couldn’t identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principals of the U.S. Constitution.

I’m not going to belabor this report, but I begin this week’s history post highlighting what I think is a major issue in our country today—widespread historical illiteracy.

It matters because in a culture where information overload is prevalent, having some basis of determining fact or fiction is important. At a time when more and more citizens are relying on the internet, a cauldron of dubious information, and half-truths, for their research (if in fact they research anything that they hear on television, or anywhere else), or take the word of demagogues and other spinmeisters as the gospel truth, the lack of historical veracity is damning to our country.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the midst of our nation’s ideological divide. Republicans on the right are sure they are correct, merely because their favorite talk show host tells them so. On the left, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and other organs of Democratic thought fortify opinions tending toward the left end of the political spectrum.

This week, and next, I’m playing fast and loose with the letter D, since that’s where we’re at in week four, for History Maker Mondays. The challenge thus far has been finding time to do some research, and write something relevant. I may dispense with the alphabet, and even tweak the weekly nature of these posts, only because I don’t want to just cut and past information from Wikipedia, although many of the entries found there on many topics are great jumping off points for additional research on subjects of one’s choosing.

D is for Davis

Since we’re at the letter D, I’m using the late biographer and novelist, Kenneth S. Davis as my tether.

Davis, a biographer of Eisenhower, Lindbergh, and Adlai Stevenson, compiled one of the most vivid portraits of Franklin Roosevelt in his five volume series on FDR. A combination of history with a flair for literature, Davis’s FDR: The New Deal Years 1933-1937, has been some of my reading material for the past week.

The Davis book is one in a list of books that I’ve been poring through since early fall about the Great Depression. Given our current economic woes, with the only parallel being that period 70 years prior, having a grounding in the history of the era, as well as understanding the politics and the key figures is serving me well. I say “serving me well” because it’s grounding me in history, and allowing me to form my own ideas about where we’re at with the election of Barack Obama, and his own indications of what he might be willing to do to address the economic crisis we’re facing at the moment.

The second benefit that my historical orientation is providing me with is a built-in bullshit detector, warning me when a commentator, political pundit, or anyone else begins shoveling fecal matter in my direction about what’s going on at the moment.

A case in point—among certain quadrants on the ideological right, it’s become fashionable to formulate historical revisionism regarding the legacy of Herbert Hoover. The context most often involves Mr. Obama’s association with FDR, and the New Deal. The argument goes something like this; Obama is a socialist in the FDR/New Deal tradition. His stimulus package is like many of the FDR programs, which, by the way, conservative Republicans start foaming at the mouth at mere mention, so by way of association, Obama is immediately suspect with these folks, because they are quite sure that FDR’s policies didn’t work, and in fact, Hoover’s follies suddenly have taken on a new luster, reversing 70 years of history, and countless books about Hoover and his failed policies. The latest revision goes something like this. FDR’s policies are what plunged the nation into the Great Depression, not Hoover’s. FDR was a socialist, and his administration’s overly intrusive, big government programs helped prolong the misery. Hoover on the other hand, was a true Republican, and kept government from meddling in the economy. I kid you not.

Hoover’s Legacy

I’ll end this week’s post with a review of the conditions that the good work done by Herbert Hoover visited on the country, resulting in Hoover losing his bid for reelection in 1932, to Franklin Roosevelt.

It’s hard to fathom the misery and human toll visited on American by the economic collapse that became the Great Depression.

Here are some “snapshots” from 1932:
  • 15 million Americans with no jobs and no hope of a job (quarter of the nation’s workers)
  • In a country of 130 million people, 60 million of them were without any means of support
  • Factories lay idol
  • Storefronts were vacant
  • Fields had been plowed under
  • State governments had exhausted their meager funds to assist
  • Skilled and unskilled laborers stood together in bread lines
  • There were large scales homeless encampments, known as “Hoovervilles”

"The cure for unemployment is to find jobs.”--Herbert Hoover

In 1932, the U.S. industrial powerhouse that had emerged after WWI, lay idle. Farmers were facing a crisis fueled by debt and drought. For most Americans losing a job, first came belt tightening, then despair, and eventually, dcestitution. Millions lost their homes, saw their clothes wear to the point where they became rags, and were forced to forage like animals for their next meal.

Despite all the telltale signs of loss and physical suffering, the greatest loss was to the spirit. People felt fear, shame, and despair. Suicides soared. Their dreams disappeared with the loss of work.

Under the Republican administrations beginning in 1921 and spanning the administrations of Harding, Coolidge and finding culmination under Herbert Hoover; business interests ran the country. Government was denied a central role in addressing social problems. The right data gathered by the govt. would allow banks to adjust their loan portfolios, and manufacturers their production schedules to achieve maximum efficiency. Labor was just another commodity to be inputted, like iron ore, or cotton, to be purchased on the open market, at the cheapest rate.

Up until the Great Depression, this business-oriented way of seeing the world was generally accepted by the majority, with only radical elements putting forth another view.

In 1932, as businesses continued to fail at unprecedented rates, banks closed their doors (the count being at over 600 and continuing to grow), and more and more Americans landing out of work, Hoover had little to offer the citizenry beyond platitudes.

With unemployment skyrocketing, including 200,000 New Yorkers losing jobs between January and October in 1932, Hoover thought job sharing, coupled with a good joke would do the trick.

The president and business leaders, including Standard Oil, came up with a plan to cut the hours of those working, and sharing their jobs with recently laid off workers. This meant that now, even those who had managed to keep their jobs would be sharing in the ever-increasing poverty in the U.S.

At each step downward into America’s spiral into poverty, Hoover maintained an unflinching resolve to maintain a balanced budget above all else. Fiscal responsibility, and an almost psychotic belief that the only thing preventing America’s economic bottoming out after the stock market crash was for its people to suddenly rediscover optimism.

“I’m convinced we’ve now passed the worst,” Hoover told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on May 1, 1930.

“There is one certainty in the future—that is prosperity.”

In January of 1932, Hoover told Father James Cox, who led a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanian on Washington that a government sponsored work program (one of the provisions Cox was demanding of the Hoover administration to put people back to work and restore their dignity) would not only violate tradition, but cost too much. The real victory is to restore men to employment through jobs.

Hoover’s beliefs were shaped at the nexus of business and technology. The Stanford grad had gotten rich in mining, and was considered a wizard of finance. Hoover believed the lessons of engineering could be applied to society. Since science had made it possible to tame the natural world, by extension, Hoover posited that man and the problems inherent in society should also bend to the whims of scientific business practices.

As a lifelong Republican, Hoover subscribed to the philosophy of rugged individualism. He saw no role for government in providing relief. If individuals and families couldn’t work, then the role of relief fell to churches, and other organizations.

When the Depression stuck, Hoover’s philosophy left no room for bold action to alleviate suffering.

Lastly, Hoover believed in the power of persuasion, in part because as an advocate of business, he has seen the power of marketing and phraseology for moving the masses.

Hoover continued to treat the situation as a crisis of confidence, something to be talked, joked away, or sung about.

“What this country needs is a good, big laugh. There seems to be a condition of hysteria. If someone could get off a good joke every 10 days, I think our troubles would be over.”

Given that the country was mired in its economic woes, with no relief in site, the American people were looking for someone to lead them forth from their misery. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be the political savior in whom they put their hopes for the future.