Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reading List

As I mentioned in the last post, "Roosevelt's Purge" is on a list of books I'm reading to prepare myself for completing my Project.  This reading list will be comprised of books that deal with the evolution of political parties in American history, and probably in other countries, as well.  It will include biographies and memoirs of past and current presidents, as well as other prominent politicians and statesmen in our past and present; studies on the history of political parties themselves; The Federalist Papers; The Anti-federalist Papers; A People's History of the United States; A Patriot's History of the United States; and others.

When it comes to this reading list, I'm interested only in learning about how the parties, and the two-party system in particular, came to be, and how to lessen their influence in national politics.  I was impressed when I read an article the other day (I can't remember where, at this point) that pointed out the Tea Party has grown to be as popular as either of the two major "official" parties in America.  That's hardly relevant to what I'm trying to achieve, though.  While the Tea Party has taken great strides in realigning the Republican Party, whether they intended to or not, it still doesn't change the fact that we have a political duopoly in this country.  The Project is to change the system so that candidates across, from the lowliest local officer to the President of the United States, can run independent of any political party and still have an honest chance to become elected.

The reading list isn't to help me better understand any party's ideology, or even which party is "preferable" to the others; it's to help me better understand how the current system came to be so that I can suggest an actual alternative to the system.  If you have any suggestions on books or articles that could help, then please suggest them in the comment section below.

That's how FDR did it

I've been compiling a reading list of books that address the evolution of political parties in American history for the Project.  My most recent find is a book by Susan Dunn called "Roosevelt's Purge", about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's efforts to influence Democratic primary elections so he would have more allies (read:  liberals) in Congress, particularly the Senate.  I've only read two chapters so far, and I've already seen parallels between President Roosevelt and ... the Tea Party.

First, let me say that I think Ms. Dunn may have discovered the first ever recorded negative comparison of an American politician to Adolf Hitler.  After losing a vote that was particularly important to him, and the support of several conservative Democratic senators, FDR announced that he would, as leader of the Democratic Party, be directly taking part in Democratic primaries and nominating events (though he asserted his involvement had nothing to do with revenge or retaliation).  He faced an immediate backlash from the press, who labeled his efforts an ideological "purge" of the party.  The Chicago Tribune went so far as to write that this would leave the party with nothing but "Hitler yes-men and Stalin Communists". (It should be noted that this was before the Holocaust and World War II.  Still, it's quite a reaction to a theretofore popular president from the normally admiring press.)

Ms. Dunn writes of the former president in glowing terms, characterizing his efforts as a way to appeal directly to the voters, whom he believed supported his agenda, to elect representatives who would also support it.  Still, it's clear there was more than a desire to push an agenda, however well-meaning the agenda itself may have been.  She even writes about one of the president's allies who suggested the aforementioned vote should be used as a "litmus test" of loyalty when deciding whom he should support in the primaries.  Terms like litmus test, party loyalty, and ideological purity are used by the media today as they were used back in FDR's day:  as a negative color of the actions of a leader or group inside a political party.

Whereas in the late '30's, they were applied by the press to President Roosevelt, they are applied today to the Tea Party; and it's not inaccurate.  Both sought/seek to create a clear choice for voters, to force them to look beyond labels such as "Democrat" and "Republican", and examine the ideology of the candidates themselves.  Though the motives of both FDR and the Tea Party can be questioned, it cannot be denied they both have the right idea.  Terms like "Blue Dog Democrat" and "RINO (Republican In Name Only)" didn't exist in Roosevelt's day, but he'd have certainly recognized the meaning behind the terms, and would probably have encouraged their use.

The more books I read on the history of politics in America, the more I'm impressed by how much it resembles our current situation.  Every presidential biography I've read so far gives examples (sometimes blindingly obvious ones) of party divisions, nomination fights, and the emergences of groups like the Tea Party, even if they had no official name.  I was never a very attentive student of history in school, and had a vague impression that the old saying didn't hold true; that we are not, in fact, repeating history over and over again.

On the other hand, if the champion of liberalism in the first half of the 20th century can be compared to an insurgent force for conservatism in the early 21st, then maybe history is repeating itself.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Help support a Free Exchange of Ideas

I hope you've enjoyed reading my posts and found them to be insightful and informative, as well as entertaining.  While I'm working on the Project, I'd appreciate any support you can give me.  Please visit my online store at Zazzle and purchase anything you find interesting.  The gear may seem to be election-themed, but the sentiments are important year-round. Thank you in advance for all your support.


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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Goodbye (for now)

Well, the 2010 elections are over, and the speculation has already begun on a host of issues.  Will the Republicans legislate responsibly, or "drive the car back into the ditch"?  Will President Obama tack to the center, as President Clinton did after the '94 elections?  Will the Tea Party's influence increase or decrease in the wake of mixed electoral results?  And how will all of this affect the prospects of those who may or may not run for Congress and the presidency in 2012?

Frankly, I won't be talking about any of that.  I had my favorites Tuesday night, as did everyone, and I have my hopes (and fears) for the future; but as much as this blog has been about freely discussing ideas and issues, someone else will have to take care of that for the next year or so.  My time will be spent on two things:  one, my new website Fourth-day Universe, and two, my non-fiction book project on changing the nominating processes currently used in America.

Now more than ever, I think, we should be aware of the problems inherent in our current nominating systems.  If the most recent elections have shown us anything, then it's the pitfalls associated with the primary system.  Sitting senators, such as Bob Bennet in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, who have demonstrated they are still popular with large portions of their constituents, were excluded from the official ballots in their states because of the current systems.  Official candidates like Alvin Greene in South Carolina and Dan Maes in Colorado proved to be damaging to their respective parties' prospects of winning elections, forcing third-party candidates to join the race and offer credible alternatives to the voters.  And candidates like Christine O'Donnell, who is a personal favorite of mine for many reasons, received virtually no support from their own parties because of divisive primary battles.

It's time to take the future of our elected leadership out of the hands of political parties, especially the national ones.  The current nominating systems do not sufficiently provide for all American voters a wide enough range of candidates.  Voter apathy is fueled mainly by the perception that elections are merely opportunities to vote for the "lesser of evils".  We need a better system, and we need it as soon as possible.  The next election, after all, is for the presidency.

This blog won't be entirely inactive.  I'll still offer my view on the most major events, such as the State of the Union Address and major legislative, executive, and judicial actions; and, of course, I'll provide updates on my project.  In the meantime, keep the free exchange of ideas open.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

No endorsement this year.

In Virginia's 2nd District (my home district) Democratic Congressman Glenn Nye and Republican Scott Rigell are within one point of each other with only one week left before the polls close.  Unfortunately, for the independent challenger Kenny Golden, he's far in third place with only 5 points.  Clearly, everyone needs all the help they can get in these last few days of the 2010 campaign.  They can count me out, though.

Oh, I'll still vote.  I wouldn't sit out an election for anything.  Too many people around the world are denied the privilege of electing their own leaders for me to ever take my right for granted.  However, an endorsement this year will not be forthcoming from Free Exchange.

I've endorsed candidates before, on both sides.  In last year's gubernatorial race, I endorsed Bob McDonnell who eventually went on to win the election.  I also endorsed his eventual opponent, Creigh Deeds, in the Democratic primary, just so I'd have the best two candidates in the general election.  As long as primaries and caucuses are in place, I believe in using them to ensure we have the best roster of candidates available to us.

At this point, though, it's hard to get excited enough about any of the candidates to say "I'm standing behind him 100%."  They each have their high and low marks, and they all have their good and bad ideas.  I don't want to get into a list of them, partly because I've written about them before, and partly because I don't feel this is the best time to say "I'm supporting him, and this is why".

A lot of endorsements are "rolled out" in the last week before the election.  It's probably because most newspapers, candidates, pundits, and other politicos don't want to appear too partisan too early on.  Maybe they want to wait until they feel confident backing "the winner".  Or maybe they feel that most people don't actually start paying attention until the last week or so, which makes then the best time to say "this is who you should vote for and why".  That all may be true; but if it is, then waiting until now to endorse a candidate is both cynical and manipulative.

If I'm going to endorse a candidate, then I do it early.  If it actually takes me this long to make up my mind, then there's no sense expecting others to make up theirs any more quickly (or on my say-so).  Yes, I feel strongly about the candidates; not only in my district, but across the country as well.  Yes, I feel the election is important; so important that I don't want to see any American waste their opportunity to vote.  Early voting has already begun, in fact, so we could all vote today.  I'm a bit of a traditionalist, so I'm waiting until the actual Election Day (also to give myself more time to reach a decision).

That's the only real reason to wait, either to vote or to endorse:  because you're not sure who the best is.  Often, we are, and we usually have no trouble saying so; but there's nothing wrong, especially in these uncertain times, with taking as much time as you have to weigh all the factors.  Maybe nothing will change between now and next Tuesday; but if the last two years have taught us anything, it's that politics are full of surprises.

So, if you've made up your mind, then good for you.  I say go out and vote right now (if you're able to, of course).  Make whatever endorsements you like, for whatever reason you like, and don't hesitate to tell everyone you meet.  Speech is still free, after all.  As for myself ... I've still got a few days left.

Monday, October 25, 2010

No matter who "wins" next week, don't stop the exchange

The period right after an election is the most important point at which the free exchange of ideas needs to continue.  Never settle into a "we won, they lost" or vice versa attitude, and never believe that, just because one side won, it means their ideas won.  After the last election, a coworker told me she believed conservatism was "dead", along with its ideas.  The last year and a half has proven that neither of those is true.  Just because one side "wins" is no reason to ignore what the other side has to say.

Here are a few items in my online store to remind you of a few important things:  first of all, that the goal is not to promote partisanism, but activism; that it's not about politics, but issues; that the voters are the ruling class in America; and that being right without knowing why you're right is the same as being wrong.  Spread the word; keep the exchange of ideas open and free.  And keep your minds open.


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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Free speech meets the "free press"

Juan Williams was fired this week from his job at National Public Radio.  He's a world class political analyst who has won many awards for journalistic excellence, including an Emmy.  His writings have appeared in a wide range of publications, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Ebony, and Atlantic Monthly.  He holds several degrees, and contributes and appears regularly on many shows and stations.

Why would a man with such credentials be fired by NPR, an institution with a stated goal to "[e]xpand the reach and relevance of NPR and member stations to current and new audiences"?  He was fired for expressing his personal apprehension about seeing Muslims on airplanes.  He didn't do this on NPR; in fact, he said this on Fox News as part of a discussion of whether America has a "Muslim dilemma".  After Mr. Williams, an African American, said that he would be nervous at the sight of a Muslim on the same airplane as he, NPR, citing their own "editorial standards and practices", announced that Mr. Williams' contract was terminated.

Though protected in the same amendment, those who exercise their right to free speech are often punished for doing so by their employers in today's free press.  I shouldn't say "today's" free press, since the forerunners of today's "mainstream media" were just as prone to censuring (and censoring) reporters and news anchors.  The problem is, you rarely hear about these sorts of punishments, as frequent as they are.  People are fired all the time from all sorts of jobs for expressing their personal feelings about a particular issue, whether or not it has anything to do with their job.  Well, that's the right of the employer, I suppose; but it seems especially inappropriate that a news agency, supposedly a guardian of both free speech and free thought, should fire one of their best analysts for exercising his freedom of speech.

Juan Williams is just the latest and most prominent example of this.  In the last six months, two well-loved local anchors (perhaps more) found themselves the victims of media discrimination.  I posted before about Shad Olson, the South Dakota news anchor who lost his job after speaking at a Tea Party rally in his home state.  He never suggested that his appearance at the event was endorsed by his station.  He didn't go there advocating or opposing any political candidate.  He simply fulfilled his duty as a citizen to speak when he had something to say.

A few months later, a Virginia weather reporter named Jon Cash was fired for saying that "the Lord had called [him] to a full-time ministry", though not for another year.  Not content to wait a year, the general manager of the news station promptly fired him for making comments that were "bad for business".  Jon Cash is something of a local hero, as he's been the weather man for about 20 years.  Within days of his firing, a Facebook page was formed under the name "Bring Back Jon Cash".  It now has over 7,000 members.

Neither Mr. Olson nor Mr. Cash gave their employers any reason to doubt their dedication.  Aside from the awards both men had won and their immense popularity with the local audiences, they were both so fair and objective in their reporting that none of the viewers would get even a hint of their political or evangelical leanings.  And yet, within hours of statements made by the two men, neither one of them either on air or speaking in the name of their stations, they were both disciplined by their employers, and were both forced to seek new ones.

People like to talk about how the Republican Party lately has been "purging" itself of all moderates in favor of ideological purity; they also see Fox News as taking a similar tack, gathering more and more conservative commentators to themselves as time progresses.  In reality, though, the mainstream media is the entity most guilty of ideological purging, as conservative commentators have steadily seen themselves fired or forced out of positions at CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and even some of the broadcast stations, which created a steady supply from which Fox News and Fox Business have drawn most of their new recruits.  Though it's easy for some to say those anchors and reporters were fired because they were "kooks" and are now free to join a station of kooks, it's harder to be glib when it happens to someone you've known and watched for years.

The cases of Shad Olson and Jon Cash are microcosms of the larger issue, one that is perhaps more clear in the case of Juan Williams:  you cannot expect to serve in today's mainstream media and hold opinions about politics, religion, or national security that run contrary to what the media declares to be mainstream.  I recall an episode of "Boston Legal" from about five or six years ago in which a singer was barred from singing what was perceived as an antiwar song in a club whose owner was prowar.  Though the judge on the show ruled in favor of the club owner, she also made it clear that she personally agreed with the lawyer's argument that private enterprise owners are exercising free speech discrimination where the government cannot.  Perhaps they are.  On the other hand, so is the free press.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Because I Can

The New York Times is asking people to submit videos on why they'll vote this year; what issues drive them to the polls.  What drives me to the polls?  Freedom.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Still thinking like a national party?

It didn't take the early political partisans in America all that long to realize the country was growing too large for local parties to have much influence on the national stage.  In fact, it was about one generation after the first official United States Congress that parties in the north began to actively recruit likeminded politicians in the south to become their allies in Congress (same story as now, just two hundred years earlier).  They were pretty clumsy about it at first, so a lot of parties sprang into existence only to disappear shortly thereafter.  Eventually, around the time of the Civil War, we were left with just Republicans and Democrats (though neither really resembles their namesakes today).

On the other hand, they still act an awful lot like the parties of the 1800's.  Disregarding local issues and even the question of just how loyal a particular politician is to the platform, parties aggressively recruit anyone who wears their label, as long as they can win the election and tip the balance of power to one side or the other.  Of course, that gives you a lot of candidates like Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, who changed parties not once but twice in his political career, which ultimately led to his losing his Senate seat.  It also gives you candidates like Mike Castle in Delaware who was recruited by national Republicans to run for Senate but rejected by Delawarean Republicans in the primary in favor of Christine O'Donnell.  As the axiom goes, "all politics are local".

Some don't think so.  The New York Times actually took O'Donnell's nomination as an example of politics being national, since she was supported by the Tea Party.  However, it was Castle who was recruited specifically because he was seen as the Republican candidate most likely to succeed in Democratic Delaware.  While he may have easily won the general election, the question of whether he would have legislated as a "Republican" or not is certainly debatable.  The GOP primary voters didn't think so, and they responded by nominating O'Donnell, who was clearly the more conservative candidate.

Some see it as a "disaster" for the national GOP, as Castle could very well have flipped control of the Senate into Republican hands.  However, if you're like me and are tired of seeing national politics take the form of a two-way chess (or shouting) match with the occasional brave third player poking his head out of the crowd, then this is fantastic.  National parties focus on national politics.  They claim to have the "big picture" in mind.  That doesn't leave much room for the "small" pictures, though, which our representatives in Congress are supposed to address.

So, again, it comes down to which candidate the Republicans in Delaware (not the national Republicans) think would better represent their interests in Congress.  O'Donnell apparently fit that description.  Whether she'll win or not is irrelevant.  She's not required to win in order to be the nominee.

National parties don't care about local issues; not entirely.  They have their own agenda, as they always have:  to oppose the other side.  No matter how altruistic they may be, they're prepared to sacrifice whatever local issues they must in order to win.  That's why people don't trust Republicans and Democrats; that's why a majority of Americans don't belong to either party; and that's why candidates like Christine O'Donnell have been winning nomination fights across the country.  This is no longer a two-player game.  Local candidates (and voters) are joining the party of no, as in no, we don't care about your national agenda; no, we don't care about your long-term strategy for controlling Congress; no, we don't care who you think can win; and no, we don't care if we lose.  They've chosen the candidates they prefer, and come November 2nd, they'll vote, many of them for the first time.  Win or lose, it's going to be a sight to see.

Update:  16 October 2010

Though some have done so for months, as the elections draw near more Democrats have begun to distance themselves from Speaker Pelosi.  It is another example of national politics versus local politics.  The Democratic Party recruits not on ideology but on brand.  However, while the national party may consider itself a big tent with a diverse membership, if your members can't even agree on who should lead or what your agenda should be, then you'll be much worse for the trouble.  That's why Republicans have been "purging" themselves for months now.  Is there any doubt as to which approach has been more successful?  Those doubts will be dispelled on November 2nd.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

America's failures

A quick reminder as we enter one of the more contentious phases of democracy: the only times America has failed have been when we divided ourselves against each other.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

I had the opportunity tonight to attend another candidate forum between Congressman Glenn Nye, Scott Rigell, and Kenny Golden.  As I've said before, it's important to meet and listen to the candidates in person to get a better feel for their character. Ideology and issues aside, character is what defines a candidate.  Tonight's forum, hosted by the League of Women's Voters, gave all three plenty of opportunities to show their character.

I arrived fairly early to the debate and had a chance to meet some members of the Rigell campaign.  They were busy posting signs and handing out information for their candidate to a degree that was ... let's just say unmatched by either of the other camps.  It was evidence either of the enthusiasm gap or the fundraising gap (or both) between Rigell and his opponents.  At the end of the night, though, as one person observed, it all comes down to the candidates and how well they themselves perform.

I've been to one other debate between the candidates, but last time I only had the chance to watch the candidates onstage.  Tonight, I got to meet and shake each of their hands and even speak with them for a bit.  My impressions of the three men generally bore out throughout the evening.

Kenny Golden, the independent challenger with a resume twice as long as the other candidates', seemed to have a patriarchal presence.  For every question he was asked, he had an experience to relate.  For almost every issue raised, he could reference a time when he had already worked to resolve such an issue.  The imposed austerity of his campaign couldn't quite keep him from appearing as a father-figure every now and then during the evening, though his opponents are certainly not children.

Scott Rigell clearly won the title of Most Energetic tonight.  Perhaps feeding off his supporters' enthusiasm (or maybe they feed off his?), he seemed like a college athlete about to square off against his archrival on the field (an image boosted by the fact that the debate took place in a university conference room).  He was very personable, as well.  When I showed him my business card with the tagline "It's not about politics; it's about issues", he told me of a conversation he'd had with a friend when deciding to run for Congress.  The friend informed Rigell that he wasn't very political, but Rigell assured him that politics wasn't his reason for running, but rather concern for the direction the country is heading.

Congressman Nye arrived after his opponents and seemed a little weary.  The dual burdens of campaigning and conducting House business (though Congress is adjourned for the time being) seem to be taking their toll.  He spent tonight's debate much as he had the previous one, reestablishing his bipartisan credentials and fending the attacks of his two conservative opponents.  As the campaigns have evolved in the last month and a half, so apparently has Nye's style, as tonight he was not above firing a shot or two.

The questions and answers were more substantive tonight, though the issues remained the same:  the federal deficit, infrastructure, immigration, job creation, the potential closing of certain military installations in Virginia, and education.  The themes in the candidates' answers remained the same, as well.  Golden touted his experience at every turn (and it was a compelling argument nearly every time).  Rigell offered business-oriented solutions through much of the debate and berated Nye for his record of voting with Democrats on most issues.  Nye countered by pointing out the major issues on which he'd broken ranks with his party and emphasizing the bipartisan partnerships he's formed both inside and outside the halls of Congress.  He said he stands ready to work with businesses, teachers, other members of Congress, and with Governor McDonnell to find solutions to our problems.

I won't get into specifics about the questions and answers.  On quite a few issues, like closing and securing the U.S./Mexican border and the need for highspeed rail in Hampton Roads, the candidates actually agreed, though they disagree on how to do certain things.  Again, as in the previous debate, it came down to character tonight.  In their arguments for why they each deserve our votes, they each tried to stress their own independence and concern for the needs of the district.  I liked Rigell's accounts of how, in the course of his campaign, he'd met people across Hampton Roads who would tell him of their struggles and what they need for their businesses and families.  He made the analogy that campaigning was like a job interview and, as a business owner, this was his first time in a while being on "the other side of the desk".  I've said before that, in this time of economic uncertainty, what Congress really needs is more men and women with experience in the business world; and while Kenny Golden's resume is extensive and Glenn Nye is the only one of the three to ever serve in Congress, Scott Rigell is clearly the man with the most business experience.

There are still just over three weeks before the election.  I'm not sure who I believe would make the best representative for this district in the next Congress, but the more debates I attend, the closer I feel to getting an answer.  I encourage everyone to do the same.  We've already seen some extraordinary things this election cycle, with some very unlikely candidates making ground in places never before thought to be competitive.  No matter where you live or who your candidates are, don't make up your mind just yet about the outcome; and whatever you do, don't sit out this election.  As Congressman Nye told me when I mentioned to him that I'd not yet decided which candidate to support, "stay tuned".

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What I've been up to elsewhere

As you may know by now, I'm not just an op-ed writer.  I also run a (currently) small sci-fi/fantasy website called Fourth-day Universe.  There, I and my band of merry sci-fi writers review books, movies, conventions, etc., in addition to writing our own original fiction.  You can check out our website at FourthdayUniverse.com, "Like" us on Facebook, and follow our updates on Twitter @4thdayU.  We even have a merchandise outlet at Zazzle.com.  You can check out (and buy) our stuff on this nifty little panel here:


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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Public versus Private: Censorship in America

Often, a particular value, action, image, or even word will be deemed "unacceptable" in the public arena, such as nudity or sexual activity.  Others are so abhorrent, such as murder, that they're unacceptable anywhere at any time.  In the United States of America, however, an idea is practically never taboo, and the very first rights guaranteed in our Constitution include the right to express our ideas.  Murder depicted in a movie, for example, is acceptable, though many may choose not to watch such a movie.  As long as the expression of those ideas does not conceivably infringe on the rights of others, they are hardly ever challenged.  Several things I've read and seen today, though, illustrate the problems with ensuring that one person's rights do not infringe on another's.

The first was a news report on the Westboro Baptist Church's protest near the funeral of a fallen soldier.  Though the soldier himself was not gay, the church members argue that "U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for Americans' immorality, including tolerance of homosexuality and abortion."  Their protest, and the suggestion that Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder is going to Hell for "enabling" homosexuals, so angered the Marine's father, Albert Snyder, that he sued them in court and won a $5 million verdict.  The church appealed, saying they stayed outside the funeral and merely engaged in a general religious protest against gays in the military.  The case has finally made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices are currently debating whether the right to free speech in this case infringed the rights of the family to grieve in peace.  As of this posting, no ruling has been issued.

It reminds me of the case of the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero in New York City.  The grief over the deaths of thousands on 9/11 is still very real and very painful for many, but the planners and supporters of the project argue that shouldn't overwhelm freedom of religion.  Common sense would seem to dictate they simply build it somewhere else without making a fuss, but, as many have asked, how far away is "far enough"?  The same question exists in this potential ruling:  will the high court rule that they were "far enough" from the funeral?  Will religious freedom trump personal pain?  And if the court should rule for the family, what ramifications will that have for others who seek to freely express their own religion, such as Muslims in New York City?

The second piece was written by the entertainment magazine Movieline yesterday on the anniversary of the advent of the NC-17 movie rating.  This replaced the earlier X-rating for movies deemed by the industry to be too extreme, in one way or another, for children to see even with parental supervision.  The article has an unforgiving stance on the rating itself, believing it to be a contributing factor in the box office failures of so many movies that received the rating.  They're probably right, though it may have more to do with the presence of the "objectionable content" itself.  The rating system itself is seen as a form of censorship, with the NC-17 rating attaching a sort of death knell to any movie that receives it.  Oddly enough, Hollywood itself is often criticized as a place where morals go to die.  It's ironic, I suppose, that they should be accused of trying to impose morals surreptitiously through ratings.

This isn't so much an example of censorship as it is an example of how personal choice comes into play when it comes to a society's values.  People go to movies to be entertained, and occasionally enlightened.  The rating system, theoretically, gives them a greater sense of what sort of entertainment they can expect to find and what sort of content they might want to avoid.  It's been so successful over the years that TV shows have gotten into the act, as well as video games and even some books.  People in general, and myself in particular, appreciate knowing more about the book or movie on which they're about to spend their time and money; it's why movie reviewing as industry has thrived for so long.  The rating system doesn't remove anyone's choices or freedom, no matter how it may affect the ticket sales of a specific movie; it in fact gives us a greater capacity to choose by giving us more information.

What movie you choose to see, like what book you choose to read, is a personal, private choice.  However, some books and movies are imposed on us in the public arena, such as in public schools.  That brings us to the third item I read today, the story of a school teacher named Risha Mullins.  Ms. Mullins is a teacher with a profound love of reading.  She created "literature circles" for her students to increase their interest in reading, but the books provided weren't that successful.  Instead, she bought a bushel of young adult literature, and the students quickly became enamored with the program.  Not only did the program grow to over a hundred students in the first year and a half, but the test and reading scores among the students also rose significantly.

However, some of the books that were chosen caught the attention and ire of some of the parents.  Certain themes, such as homosexuality, caused a backlash that snowballed over the next year, culminating in Ms. Mullins losing her job.  Many across the country became aware of her situation when, among others, some of the authors whose books the students were reading came to her defense.  However, she never intended for her struggle to become a national issue.  Her only objective, from the beginning, has been to improve the education of her students.

I had an experience one year in high school. My teacher wanted to show an uneditted version of "Braveheart" to our English class, but since we were all under 18, she had us get permission slips from our parents first. My mother sent a letter in to the school and had the video pulled. It wasn't a huge deal; no one got fired or anything. It was simply an example of one parent's ideology versus one teacher's.  I appreciate what my mother did, since I know she, like the parents who involved themselves in the Mullins debacle, only wanted what was best for her children.  That doesn't always need to lead to a contest of wills or result in people losing their jobs.  For the most part, we're all trying to do the "right thing", though we may disagree over what that is.

America, in attempting to be a "big tent", has welcomed a host of people who refuse, for whatever reason, to get along with each other. In our private lives, we're allowed to watch what we want, attend whatever church we want (or not), and read whatever books we choose. In the public arena, though, you can't do anything without the approval of the whole. That's why so many people hate Congress at any given time; because it very often moves forward with laws and initiatives that we pay for, whether we approve of them or not.  It's the same case with public education; we don't want teachers being paid with our tax dollars to teach something we don't want our children to learn.

In the case of Ms. Mullins, the public school system is the only "bad actor" I can see. The teacher just wanted to teach the children; the parents just wanted to protect them.  It's the school's job to mediate the disputes. They should have defended their own, who as it turns out was one of their best. They should have offered the parents the simple choice to opt their children out of reading certain books.  I don't like to make judgments without all the facts, but I'm certain there was a better way to handle this situation than the way in which it was.

I'm often torn on the subject of public school programs. They're slaves to a system that oftens fails them and the children who attend them. On the other hand, the public schools I attended were first-rate and graduated hundreds of students each year, many with honors. I sometimes wonder if private schools would be better, or even homeschooling, since the education of children is primarily the responsibility of the parents. However, especially today, we can't expect parents to do everything themselves.  So teachers are expected to be babysitters as well as educators, watching over dozens of children at a time, helping them learn, but not conflicting with the wishes of the parents in any case.  It's not an enviable task.

My heart goes out to this teacher, whose own heart certainly seems to be in the right place.  I also pray for the family of Matthew Snyder, whose life ended so abruptly and whose absence I'm sure will be felt for years to come.  Censorship has the power to protect families like the Snyder family; but it also has the power to destroy careers, like Ms. Mullins'.  It's no wonder the Supreme Court is taking so much time to deliver a ruling.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Project's outline. Your thoughts?

Earlier today, I wrote a preliminary outline for "The Project".  Obviously, over the next year, as I write and research the topics, I'll revise whatever elements I feel need to be.  Let me know what you think of the outline, and what you would like to see included.

  1. How the current systems of primaries, caucuses, and other nominating conventions work; history of nominating candidates; the difficulties with write-in campaigns and why they are more democratic (and the answer to the problem).
  2. History of political parties in America; a brief rundown of the parties, past and present, how they came to be, their abuses of the nominating and electoral systems, and how those abuses may be rectified by the proposed reforms.
  3. Other attempts at reforms, past, present, and planned; why they did/did not/could/could not work; what lessons can be learned from them.
  4. The presidential nominating system; why the two-party primary schedules by their very existence ruin the prospects of even the most serious third-party bids.
  5. Exactly how the new system would work.
  6. The need to eliminate party identification from election ballots at every level; voters should learn (and remember) for themselves who the candidates are before they arrive at the polls, rather than wait for the ballot to inform them of who the major (and minor) party candidates are; voting on issues rather than parties; how, in just one generation, it could eliminate the stigma of party labels from politics.
  7. How this relates to eliminating the practice of dividing legislatures into "majority" and "minority" parties, and reforming leadership positions in legislatures as a consequence.
  8. The fates of national and local parties in the wake of such reforms (and why that may keep them from ever supporting such reforms); how national parties may more closely resemble the Tea Party; increased influence for and from "single-issue" parties and candidates.

I'm also considering adding a section or two on the role of the media throughout history in perpetuating not only the two-party system but parties in general.  Also, the role of the courts will no doubt be greatly affected by the new election laws and practices (should they ever be implemented, that is).

There you have it; eight to ten chapters, not very long, but hopefully very profound.  What do you think?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I'm writing a book

I've been writing fictional stories of one kind or another since I was old enough to write.  I currently have several novels planned, in fact, in addition to the short story series I'm developing for my website, Fourth-day Universe.  In all this time, though, I've never seriously considered writing a work of nonfiction until now.  I've had vague plans about publishing a collection of my blog posts, some day, depending on the success of the blog itself; but this is a far more deliberate and specific project.

I posted a pair of polls over the summer asking two questions:  Would you support altering election laws so that candidates' party affiliations and identifications are removed from the ballot, and Would you support changing the ways that state and federal governments operate so they are no longer divided into "majority" and "minority" parties.  For a while, the responses were overwhelmingly "yes" to both questions; but as the window for answering drew to a close, the responses grew more even.  The first question ended up perfectly split, 50-50, while the second question drew 64% "yes" and 35% "no".

I asked the questions because I feel they are important steps both in reducing partisanism in Congress and increasing voter participation during the entire election process.  Last May, I wrote a trio of posts entitled "The Beginning of a Solution, Parts I, II, and III."  In them, I wrote of the need to reform the way in which this country nominates its candidates for elective office.  The primary/caucus/convention system has more than its share of flaws.  I intend to explore the alternatives and even present my own.  I also wrote about how allowing Congress and state legislatures to be divided into majority and minority parties gives a virtual stamp of approval on partisan warfare.  My book will explore the possibilities of eliminating this practice, which, in conjuncture with reforming the nominating process, would hopefully ease the pressure to conform to national party standards.  In all, the goal is to create an environment where representatives pay more attention to their states and districts than they do to their "leadership".

Those who know me and/or follow my blog know that I'm both passionate about writing and highly opinionated.  I hope you've at least been enlightened if not entertained or educated by my posts.  However, as virtually any of my teachers or professors (or parents) could tell you, while I'm highly intelligent, I'm not highly organized.  This isn't usually a problem when writing fiction or even blog posts; my style tends to be more organic.  Fortunately, I'm intelligent enough to realize that my normal method of writing won't be as productive when writing non-fiction.  As soon as the elections are over, I'm going to begin researching my subject in earnest, as well as outlining the book itself.  You'll be able to read updates on my progress on my Twitter account at FreeExofIdeas.

I'll also take time every now and then to update the blog on the more important issues, including major presidential addresses such as the State of the Union.  But my target date for completion, if not publication, is late-2011/early-2012 before the presidential primaries and caucuses begin, so don't expect to see many posts here during the next year.

I haven't decided on a title yet; I imagine that will take care of itself.  For now, I'm calling it "The Project". (I know; not terribly imaginative, is it?)  Wish me luck.

The people have spoken (so get used to it).

The polls are in, and whether the majority of America wishes for a more conservative government or not, it is certain that the majority of primary voters do.  Not only have plenty of conservatives won nomination fights (and we can definitely call at least some of these primaries "fights") over their more moderate opponents, but participation in Republican primaries has eclipsed turnout in Democratic contests.

Notable examples include Carl Paladino, the GOP nominee for New York Governor, Marco Rubio, who long ago forced Charlie Crist into an independent bid for the open Florida Senate seat, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.  Notable exceptions include Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California, Terry Branstad in Iowa, and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire.  Arlen Specter, of course, is a special case in that he was rejected by both conservatives and liberals in Pennsylvania.  That particular Senate seat will go to either conservative Pat Toomey or Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, both of whom are seen as sufficiently "pure" by primary voters.

That's really the standard these days for nominating candidates, isn't it?  Before you think it's just the Republicans (or rather, Tea Partiers) who do this, remember that Barack Obama won his party's nomination over a much better known and qualified Hillary Clinton by outflanking her on the Left, especially on the issue of the Iraq War.  Remember also two years earlier when Joe Lieberman, once the Democrats' nominee for vice president, couldn't even get renominated because of the same issue (though he could certainly get reelected).

It's a simple fact that all decisions, including who our choices will be in November, are made by people who take the time and make the effort to vote.  In 2008, there were more people voting for Democrats, whether conservative, moderate or liberal, than for Republicans of any kind.  Now, it seems more conservatives have gone and will go to the polls this year.  Once again, purity seems set to win over pragmatism.

That's not to say these candidates aren't pragmatic or even good ones.  Many have strong business backgrounds, which will no doubt prove very useful as we work to rebuild the country's economy.  Many have never held public office before, which can be both a help and a hindrance.  While they may need a certain amount of on-the-job training, they won't feel as constrained by "the way things are".  And, in the case of the ideologues on both sides among the new candidates, they'll be more resistant to the "culture of corruption" in Washington.

These "upstart candidates" have caused more than a few headaches to both the Democratic and Republican national parties.  While candidates like O'Donnell were challenging "establishment picks" like Mike Castle on the Right, the Left invested millions of dollars (and man-hours) defending their own choices, such as Michael Bennet in Colorado.  I think it's a good sign.  While the national parties may be watching the "big picture" of nominating as many "electable" candidates as they can, the voters are focusing on their own big picture:  the reality that they'll be stuck with whomever is nominated as their candidate and probably their representative in Washington.  If their choice of a candidate happens to conflict with whomever the national party thinks can win and give them that final tie-breaking vote in Congress, then they say, respectfully, "Screw you" to the national party.  What's in a name?  As the Bard himself taught us, nothing.  Remember, Arlen Specter was once supported by the RNC, and he ended up betraying them.

So, forget about electability and national strategy.  Ignore the implications of nominating O'Donnell over Castle.  Trade one man's big picture for another's.  Here's my big picture:  these elections are so the people can decide who their candidates will be, not so the parties can.  I am no fan of the primary system, but as long as both major parties seek to perpetuate it, I say let it work against them and for the people.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

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A different perspective today

Nine years ago on September 11th, I was in Utah as a missionary for my church. LDS missionaries don't generally read newspapers, watch TV, or even listen to the radio, so as far as I knew when my fellow missionary and I left our apartment, this was just another day to preach the gospel of Christ. When we arrived at our first appointment that morning, though, I began to get hints that this day was different.

Our appointment came out of his trailer to meet us. We acted as we normally do, cheerfully greeting him, until he stopped us with the words, "You don't know, do you?" He took us inside and showed us the news report. I could see a building, unrecognizable to me at first, with billows of smoke coming out of it. I don't think any of us knew what was really happening just then, other than that a plane or planes had crashed. The full significance of the event took a long time to set in to my mind.

Most missionaries stay in the field for two years, and I was only halfway through mine when 9/11 occured. For an entire year after, I managed to avoid most of the furor and fear that had gripped the nation, because, like I had been for an entire year before, I was "removed" from the world. I didn't know what the Department of Homeland Security was, who al Qaeda were, or what we were doing to fight them. The first real effect I had felt from the attack was nearly a year later when it came time to fly home and having to take off my shoes before airport security would allow me through.

What was I doing that year while America tried to reset itself after such a horrific event? I was preaching the gospel. While most people had spent the first year after 9/11 trying to decide how to respond to the attacks, I had spent it responding to questions about Christ. While others wondered who had done this and why, I wondered whom I would be teaching next. While others had their focus on worldly matters, I focused on spiritual matters. I spent the second year of my mission in much the same way I had spent the first year. Though I never actually heard President Bush's speech about the need to continue on as we had before the attacks, I was already taking his advice.

I had always known that growing up in the church had given me a different perspective on life, and it certainly has in this case. The scriptures remind us, in many different ways, that vengeance is God's prerogative, and that ours is forgiveness. We're told repeatedly that the law of God is love, for our enemies as well as our neighbors. In the case of the nation of Islam, they are sometimes the same thing. I've said before and still believe that the authors of terror and murder deserve whatever punishment they have coming to them; but that doesn't mean we should hate them. When a group or nation declares war on us or our way of life, it is our responsibility to defend ourselves, and even those who cannot defend themselves; but we should never do it with hate in our hearts. We were enemies with Adolf Hitler, with Mussolini, and with Hirohito, but when World War II ended, we helped Germany, Italy, and Japan rebuild, and now we're strong allies with each nation. We were enemies with Saddam Hussein, but now we have what could be a strong ally in Iraq.

Did Islam itself attack us? Even if it did, we should not hate them, anymore than we should hate each other for how we each choose to respond to the attack. This controversy over the "Ground Zero Mosque" is embarrassing to every one of us. Those who oppose building the center have, in many cases, legitimate anger and pain in their hearts, and that should be respected, not derided, by those who support it. On the other hand, many who oppose it do so for no other reason than they hate Islam. Prejudice and hatred should be fought just as ardently as we fight terror and fear.

Pastor Terry Jones, the man who caused so much controversy himself lately, said this day he would not follow through on his planned Koran-burning. I believe that is the right decision, though I may wonder if he made it for the right reasons. Nevertheless, his proposed burning has sparked outrage across the globe. A riot in Afghanistan resulted in the death of a protester. Westboro Baptist Church, the same church that protested outside of a gay soldier's funeral, threatened to go forward with their own burning if Pastor Jones did not (no word yet on if they have). And just now, there are reports of British Muslims who have burned an American flag along with a picture of Pastor Jones in response to the planned, if canceled, Koran-burning.

This should be a day of remembrance, not vengeance; a day of understanding, not blindness; a day of love, not hate. As President Obama reminded us today, "We are not at war with Islam". Our duty is to remember those whom we have lost, to honor their memories. We do that, as both Presidents Bush and Obama remind us, by coming together as a nation and as a community. We are strongest when we stand united, as we did after the attacks nine years ago, as we have done in every moment of great distress in our nation's history that ultimately lead to victory. The only times America has failed have been when we divided ourselves against each other.

Let us all come together now. We are not Muslims, Jews, or Christians; believers or atheists; Republicans or Democrats. We are Americans. This is a truly great nation, one that has stood as an inspiration to people across the world for centuries now. When one of us attacks another, over our religion (or lack thereof) or our politics, we are all damaged. As a missionary, I learned that people would look at me as an example of my church, and that, however unfair it may be, my behavior would reflect on the church itself. How does our behavior as Americans, on this and every day, reflect on America?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Know why you're right. tee shirts from Zazzle.com

Know why you're right. tee shirts from Zazzle.com

Check out this latest in Free Exchange's product line, which reminds us that being right without knowing why you're right is the same as being wrong.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Killing Fields Of Caracas - Investors.com

For any who think that Hugo Chavez is just another leader of just another nation, or that celebrities like Sean Penn have the right idea in "reaching out to him in friendship", or that the murder capital of the world is anywhere other than Caracas, here's a wake up call. While our president issues a report to the United Nations on how terribly American citizens abuse human rights, here's the winner of the Miss Universe pageant, Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela, showing the wisdom and courage to defy one of the greatest human rights abusers in the world today. Our president would do well to take notice.

The Killing Fields Of Caracas - Investors.com

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's not a 'ruling class' (and it's not semantics)

So, a couple of days ago, Conor Friedersdorf, a senior editor on Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish", basically reposted a piece by a conservative commentator, William Voegeli. In it, Mr. Voegeli explains that the "Tea Party backlash" has risen in response to an increased arrogance on the part of the current leadership in Washington. On the other hand, replacing the "establishment" isn't as simple as voting the current leadership out of office.

Here's how the whole thing goes. There's always going to be an "establishment", whether its one built on democracy, theocracy, or as Mr. Voegeli believes the current one sees itself, on a meritocracy, filled with "eternal valedictorians" who consider anyone who disagrees with their view of the world to be a fool (and they don't suffer fools). But while the meritocratic establishment learned from the previous establishment, they're not so likely to "teach" the next one; so the question is, how will the next establishment learn, and what will they learn?

That's actually a good point; but it's not how Mr. Friedersdorf saw the issue. He tries to put it "succinctly" by asking the Tea Partiers: "if we're choosing our ruling class the wrong way now, what alternative do you recommend?" He's missing the point; which is stunning, since Mr. Voegeli already summed it up:

"An alternative reading of what the Tea Party movement does and should want is not a better establishment but a less autonomous establishment, subject to the checks and balances of a re-engaged citizenry and a re-invigorated Constitution that constrains its discretion. "
We're not trying to elect a "ruling class"; we're trying to elect leaders who realize that they aren't a ruling class. And that's the answer to his question. We don't need a new system for electing leaders (except possibly as regards our primary and other nominating conventions, of which I've already written); we just need our leaders to remember their role. It's not as our rulers, but as our servants. They may be better educated and more experienced, but that does not excuse either the arrogance or the dismissiveness we have all seen in Washington and in our own state capitals.

Perhaps it was just a poor choice of words on Mr. Friedersdorf's part; but if so, then it was extremely poor indeed. There's a culture of corruption at work in our leadership, and it feeds on pride; the pride that comes from having power over others, and that tells them they're above accountability, that they are actually the "ruling class". You cannot govern, especially in America, without the consent of the governed. We rule in America (as easy as that is for everyone to forget).

Give me a man (or woman) who knows his strength, but doesn't flaunt it; who seeks to lead, but not to have power; who wants to help, but not to impose; and who owns his mistakes and seeks to rectify them. Give me someone humble, but self-assured; courageous, but careful; intelligent, but thoughtful; compassionate, but firm. There aren't many out there, I know, but with 300 million from which to choose, we should be able to find them.

I don't have a problem with elites running the government; in fact, I want elites running the government. I just don't want them running over me in the process.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter (and Zazzle)

Free Exchange has come a long way in the last year and a half; about a hundred and twenty posts, covering issues from leadership to partisanship, racism to bailouts, energy, education, entitlements, and the economy; from the halls of Congress in Washington to the shores of California and beyond; debating death, taxes, and something more onerus than both, elections. I've tried to keep an open mind with my posts and encourage honest debate on all these subjects and more. I hope you've all enjoyed my writing and been at least partially enlightened, as well.

There is more to this blog than just my opinion pieces, of course. I have three accounts on other sites that I hope you would follow, also. I have a page on Facebook where I hope to start full discussions with my readers on a wide range of subjects. The topics currently include proposed changes to the Constitution, ending the practice of dividing Congress into "majority" and "minority" parties, and reforming elections and education in America. It's also a place to receive updates on related news stories and other items.

It also serves as a feed for my Twitter account, which will contain links to all my posts from here. Twitter gives me a chance to succinctly respond to items posted by news organizations, such as Yahoo, AP, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. As I've said before, this blog is for opinion pieces, and is not a news outlet; but I will post links to news stories on Twitter, and even write out responses to items I feel deserve more than just a blurb. My account there will have updates from all of my outlets.

My third account is at Zazzle, where I create t-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, etc., with little "nuggets of wisdom" from my blog. Yes, it is an online store, and yes, I am asking you to buy my products. But my purpose is twofold: one, to supplement my modest income; and two, to advertise my ideas (not just my products) beyond the blogosphere. My products serve as reminders to everyone that "It's not about politics, it's about issues," and that "Politics affect politicians, but issues affect everyone." They're non-partisan, and I don't think anyone would feel out of place wearing or displaying any of them during the election season and beyond.

I started this blog to promote issues and the free discussion of them. I have my own view, but I'm happy and even eager to hear other views. I also started it to encourage more activism on the part of the "average" American. We have a great freedom in this country, to choose our leaders and hold them accountable for their actions, and I believe we should all embrace that freedom at every opportunity. I started this blog with that ideal in mind, and my Facebook, Twitter, and Zazzle accounts each serve in their own ways to achieve that ideal. I hope you will help me in this, and keep spreading a free exchange of ideas.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The man who does not vote has no advantage over the man who cannot vote

Just borrowing/amending a line from Mark Twain to promote a little more activism. The general election season is steadily on the march, and you can expect things to get more tense as November approaches.

At least, you can expect things to get tense in Washington and in the candidates' headquarters. Whether or not it's tense for any of you depends on how closely you've been paying attention these last few years. True, things were getting bad in this country before the financial meltdown, but that was when, I think, the country started paying more attention to what Washington was doing.

In the last few years, Congress has spent more money trying to revive the economy than they have on any other endeavor (with mixed results, at best). They've passed more controversial legislation than almost any Congress in history, and in shorter time. The American people have responded with a massive shift in ideological enthusiasm. The same left wing of the country that rose to help sweep a Democratic supermajority into Congress seems to be taking a seat while the Tea Party has already ensured that several long-term legislators will not be returning to Washington this next year.

To say this political "realignment" is unprecedented would be untrue. I think we can all agree that the country has mood swings, not to mention unrealistic expectations of our leadership. On the other hand, while it is the responsibility of the people to keep an eye on our elected representatives in Washington, it's often the fault of the people who don't vote. How many Americans just don't like Congress, or politics, or elections? How much do we take for granted our right to choose our leaders? We can decry the process and shout "fraud" whenever someone is elected who we feel shouldn't be; but how many Americans simply don't vote when the time comes? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if you forget about your country, then your country will forget about you.

Whether you like the candidates or not is irrelevant; whether you like Congress or not is irrelevant. These men and women will represent you in Washington. For the next two years, they will vote for you, whether you voted for them or not; they will speak for you, whether you speak to them or not; and they will act on your behalf, whether you tell them what you want or not. You can attempt to influence them and their vote, and you may or may not succeed; but if you don't at least try, then it is certain you won't. They make decisions that can change the course of the country, and that is not something that can be safely ignored by any of us.

The next presidential election won't be for another two years; but that doesn't mean you should wait until then to exercise your rights, to vote, to speak, and to demand accountability from your representatives. The only safe option is to become involved. Whether it's running for office, convincing someone else to run, supporting a candidate, or continuing to raise issues until the candidates can no longer "safely" ignore you, you have many options. You are just as responsible for what happens in Washington as any member of Congress.

When November comes, don't let anything stop you from voting, even if the only candidate you trust is yourself. There is no such thing as a wasted vote, except the one that is not cast.

Friday, August 20, 2010

My one and only post on the "Ground Zero Mosque"

I wasn't going to do this. Like the president himself and (a few) bloggers across the country, I wanted to stay out of this debate entirely (and I will); but I feel the debate itself could use a little ... reframing.

Cracked.com, a site that is normally devoted to any and all things humorous, posted an article today on how the debate about Muslims who want to build a mosque near the site of the fallen World Trade Center has become perverted the more people talk about it. The author points out three things that are often misconstrued about the issue: one, it's near the site of the 9/11 tragedy, not the site itself; two, it's a community center, not a mosque; and three, they have a right to build there that the government simply cannot ignore.

All those things are true; but even those three things distort the debate. One, hardly anyone still thinks they want to build on the site of the Twin Towers; two, it's an Islamic center, whether it's "strictly" a mosque or not; and three, it's not about wanting the government to step in and stop them, but rather simply about not wanting the building to be there at all.

This was the response I posted to Cracked's article (and please note, I don't say whether I think the center should be built):

Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean you should do a thing.

No one is saying the government should stop them from building a community center or even a mosque there. They're not saying it's illegal; they're saying it's wrong. Plenty of things that are wrong aren't necessarily illegal. Just like the West Baptists standing just outside the legal range of a funeral for a soldier killed in battle and shouting how glad they are he was killed, sometimes you just have to use common sense about when and where to exercise your "freedom".

Yes, it's a community center; yes, it's in a place where you couldn't even see the Twin Towers if they were still standing; and yes, politicians who have never even been to New York City have no place in this; but other people who oppose the project do have a place in it. While plenty of people who lost loved ones on 9/11 actually support building this center, there are plenty more who don't. You can't build a community center in a place where the community doesn't want it.

I say, leave the vote to the community. If New York City wants a mosque, a synagogue, or a three-ring circus built on the site, then I say let them have it; but if they say "get the hell out of our city", then I say get the hell out of their city.

Being a Congressman is about character

I said in my last post that there's nothing more American than capitalism. Well, that's why I don't like to use superlatives. There is something more American, and that's patriotism; and one of the most patriotic things you can do is involve yourself in elections.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a candidate forum with the three men running to represent my district in the House of Representatives for the next two years: the incumbent, Democrat Glenn Nye, the Republican candidate Scott Rigell, and the independent challenger Kenny Golden. I know many people don't see much value in actually attending these events. After all, politics can get ugly, they can get dirty, and if you're really interested in what they're saying, then you can always get a transcript of the debate (which is why I won't be posting the transcript, myself; those who are interested will be able to find one easily enough).

What I will post is the impressions I got of the candidates as I watched and listened to them. That's the value of attending these forums, of going to townhalls and campaign events; as scripted as they are, and as practiced and rehearsed as the speeches and answers the candidates give may be, you have a much greater chance of learning about their character by seeing them in person than you can by simply reading about them. And last night, I feel I learned quite a bit about the three candidates.

Glenn Nye was on defense for much of the night, but he held his own fairly well against his two conservative opponents. Golden had once challenged Rigell for the GOP nomination, but became an independent before the primary. They both seemed to enjoy what one of them called "Gang Up On Glenn Night", taking the opportunity to hammer Nye for his vote on last year's controversial stimulus bill and for waiting until virtually the last minute to vote no on this year's health insurance reform. Nye responded by pointing out that hundreds of pages had been added to the health bill in the final days before the vote and he had taken the time to read them before deciding which way to vote. Rigell had another theory: that Nye had waited until enough Democrats were prepared to vote yes before he decided to vote no.

Rigell has made several statements lately to the effect that Nye is his only serious obstacle to being elected, not feeling that Golden has enough support to overcome the two major party candidates. As such, Rigell seemed all too eager to go on the attack against the Congressman, hitting him on nearly every question, even as he tried to outline his own proposals for how Congress and the country should move forward. At times, it seemed as if he took the Congressman's votes personally. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for a citizen to do, since they do affect us personally; but it's not always the best route for a candidate to take.

Golden, while rarely missing a chance to criticize Nye's record, of course also took the occasional shot at Rigell, pointing out that neither candidate had as long of a record in public service as his own and that both would be forced to look through "the lens" of their own political party. He struck a populous tone throughout the evening, calling for the FairTax, an "all of the above" energy policy, and for securing the border against illegal immigrants (a position that all three candidates shared). Though he may personally believe in each of these policies, the rhetoric felt a little forced coming through his lips (which only means he's not that much of a public speaker, of course, and doesn't say much about his abilities).

The differences between the candidates was perhaps most apparent in their positions on the health insurance reform law (Obamacare). While all three oppose it, they each had different proposals for how to abolish or amend it. Golden, the populist independent, supported immediate repeal of the law. Rigell, the pragmatic if passionate businessman, points out that a repeal would likely face a presidential veto. He instead supports the idea of the next Congress simply refusing to fund the initiatives in Obamacare, reminding voters that the Legislative Branch controls the budget. Nye, showing a little more understanding of the process than the others due to his time in the House, called for use of the amendment process, which he has already used successfully to amend both Obamacare and other issues. He pledged to continue to use it in the future, particularly with regards to the mandates in Obamacare.

I was offered stickers and information on each of the candidates before the debate began, and I told the people giving them to me that I would wait until after the debate before wearing anyone's sticker. While there are things I admire about each candidate, such as Golden's record, Nye's bipartisanship, and Rigell's fierce advocacy of the free market, I just couldn't bring myself to pledge my support to anyone in advance. Even now, after watching them debate and seeing them interact with each other and the audience, I can't quite decide. Characterwise, I felt Nye won the night, since he never had an unkind or even critical word to say about either of his opponents and had instead a series of measured, policy-based answers to each question. Golden and Rigell, though, while actually agreeing with much of Nye had to say, still "ganged up" on him when they could.

Yes, a candidate is supposed to draw differences between himself and his opponent. After all, if you think he's doing a good job, then why run against him? But I've seen plenty of successful campaigns, including Bob McDonnell's campaign for governor last year, that employed virtually no negativity at all. While I appreciate the zeal Rigell and Golden displayed for their positions, I was more impressed by Nye's restraint. After all, there are plenty of things he could have used to hammer both of them, as well.

There are still two whole months before the election. I'll keep my eyes open for chances to see the candidates in action (and in person) again. I hope you all do the same, wherever you are and whoever your candidates happen to be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Exchange joins the free market (just in time for the free elections)

There's nothing more American than capitalism; except, of course, the flag, the Constitution, freedom, justice, and possibly apple pie. But I digress.

Anyway, Free Exchange is now selling a range of items, from clothing to bumper stickers, all featuring little snippets of wisdom from yours truly. The election season is fast reaching its climax, with most primaries completed and most general election ballots set. There will be many candidates, at least two from each Congressional district and many more for gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns across the country, each with their own logo, slogan, and/or brand to offer, many of which will sound exactly the same.

Free Exchange would like to offer an alternative this year: rather than voting for the candidates, vote for the issues. The product line includes many items which you can use to indicate your decision to do just that. And for those of you who don't intend to vote because you've had enough of politics, we have products to remind you that it's not about politics; it's about the issues.

Feel free to visit the online store, hosted by Zazzle.com, for some no-nonsense campaign gear this election season (more items being added each week).


Make a personalized gift at Zazzle.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Throwing more money at the mortgage problem?

There are rumors (and only rumors at this point, mind you) that President Obama may order federally-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to blanketly forgive debt owed by millions of Americans. Let me tell you why this could be a terrible idea.

How familiar are you with physics? Physics tells us that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered or transfered. That's why when you burn something you get smoke and ashes.

The same principle applies to debt, unfortunately. We learned this two years ago when all of the so-called "toxic assets" (the debt owed by all the homeowners who bought homes they couldn't afford with the help of sub-prime loans) started making their way up the mortgage food chain. Every lender who was pressured by the federal government into loaning money to people whom they knew couldn't repay (for the sake of "everyone owning a home") eventually had to deal with the fall off in revenue that comes from throwing your money out a window. The lenders in turn soon couldn't pay off their own debt, which was bought by even larger banks and lenders up the ladder until it eventually reached Fannie and Freddie, which is what lead to the TARP program of '08 (leaving an unmistakable trail of smoke and ashes in its wake).

Now, where did all those "troubled assets" go at that point? Right onto the taxpayers' backs. We're now saddled with paying off all that debt that began to accrue when the government originally told banks and lenders to ignore the fact that their customers likely would never be able to pay off their debt. Now, the government is about to do it again (reportedly). Fannie and Freddie are practically owned by the government, which is why the President feels he can order them to do this and that. However, the debt he wants them to "forgive" won't just disappear; it'll return to sit right back on our shoulders once again.

Aside from shifting "toxic" debt around like leaves on the lawn being a bad (and impractical) idea, what is the point in "forgiving" debt? It's a bailout for the little guy, of course; the one "main street" has been seeking ever since Wall Street got theirs. But if Wall Street didn't deserve one (remember all those cries of "Hey, it's their own fault for mismanaging their finances in the first place"), then why do people who bought houses they couldn't afford deserve one?

What's the alternative, you ask? First is the government recognizing the mistakes it has made, namely in sponsoring enterprises such as Fannie and Freddie and in pressuring lenders to provide subprime mortgages. To regain credibility with the American people (almost impossible to do in any election year), the federal government, President Obama in particular, needs to say "the buck stops here"; which, not incidentally, is where the toxic assets were "supposed" to have stopped.

Second, the government needs to divest itself of its ownership/stewardship of and finanical stake in private sector entities and enterprises; not just Fannie and Freddie, but also of General Motors and any other private company that may have received public funds. It must further close its doors to any and all businesses that may seek a "bailout" in the future.

Noted financial and policy experts Donald Marron and Phillip Swagel last May proposed several measures for "ensuring liquidity for housing [while addressing] the critical need to protect taxpayers and the financial system from the systemic risks posed" by the model the government uses in the case of entities like Fannie and Freddie. Regulation and backing for mortgage finances would still exist, but it would gradually phase out federal involvement in the operation of the companies, making them completely private enterprises subject to free market competition. I encourage anyone to read their proposal in its entirety.

Now, what does that mean for all those currently saddled with more housing debt than their homes are worth? Shouldn't they still receive aid? Yes; but not a "bailout". Provisions should be made to rehabilitate their finances and reduce their debt, but the argument that the 80% homeowners who aren't "under water" should foot the bill for the 20% who are runs completely contrary to both Democrat and Republican philosophies. After all, haven't Democrats spent the last year arguing that those with health insurance shouldn't have to cover emergency room costs for those without it? And isn't the same argument used by Republicans to show that taxpayers shouldn't have to fund universal healthcare coverage for those who can't afford to purchase it? It's a bit of a paradox, I know, but that's politics for you.

This whole situation began when the government started telling banks and lenders how to do business; let's not have it continue with that.

Update 08 August 2010:

Well, it remains a rumor (for now). The Treasury Department insists they're not considering what could be called a massive redistribution of wealth in the name of "forgiveness".

I used to have a friend who would always ask me for a couple of bucks so she could get something to eat, and she would always promise to pay me back. I always told her that it wasn’t necessary, since it was just a couple of bucks. Over time, though, it started to add up. One day, we learned that a hurricane was coming, and she needed some “real money” so she and her friend could leave town until it all blew over, so to speak. I gave her forty bucks, but I told her this wasn’t like the other times, and that until she paid back the forty bucks, I wouldn’t give her any more money, no matter how little. She never paid back the forty bucks, and I never gave her any more.

Governments have a responsibility to not waste taxpayer money. Every penny they spend, they spend in our name, and it is all supposed to benefit the country and its citizens. With welfare, President Clinton worked with Congress to ensure that people on welfare would someday return to the workforce, which would benefit all of us in the long run. That’s an example of responsible stewardship of taxpayer money. The TARP program is supposed to be another, although it still hasn’t been repaid and the government has accepted stock in some banks and businesses in lieu of repayment.

As far as mortgage “bailouts”, that’s simply complete irresponsibility. I would never have been able to “make” my friend repay the forty bucks; all I could do was what I said, to never give her anything else. The government, on the other hand, continues to give (our money) to people who will never be made to repay. These people received loans they would never be able to repay, bought homes they could never afford, all with the government's approval and over the business community's objections, and now that the margin call has been issued, so to speak, it seems that the government's solution is to let the lenders take it on the chin (again); which means, since the government is the one financially backing these lenders, we're the ones who take it on the chin (again).

I certainly hope this just remains a rumor.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Senator Leahy's buyer's remorse

Senator Patrick Leahy is troubled by a provision in the new financial reform bill that was just passed by Congress. An exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, what the senator describes as "our nation's premier open government law", would keep American citizens from checking up on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as it moves forward under the new law. He's quick to point out that the provision was "originally drafted in the House", and that he wants the SEC to "narrowly interpret" the new exemption.

I won't get into the specifics of the new law or its implications for America; many others have done and will do so themselves, and in much greater depth and detail than I could. The purpose of this post is to highlight the buyer's remorse that even men as accomplished and staunch as Sen. Leahy feel as they continue in the manner and courses they set for themselves. This Congress, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid at the head, has enacted practices that are not only contrary to the country's best interests, but also to their own guidelines. Bills that are massive in both size and scope are literally rushed through both houses of Congress without time for proper review on anyone's part.

It began (at least in the current Congress) with the stimulus bill that became law within a day of the final language being drafted. That final language allowed embarrassingly huge corporate bonuses to be paid (at the taxpayers' expense) despite the failures on the part of the executives receiving them. Congress was so red-faced they tried to impose a brand-new tax on those bonuses (in possible violation of ex post facto laws) to cover for the fact that they allowed them in the first place.

Now, one of the leading Democrats in the Senate unwittingly voted to allow a major regulatory agency to operate outside the view of the American public. Why? Because, again, he didn't read the final bill before he voted. He subtly tries to shift the blame to the House of Representatives for changing the language before the final vote; but as a senator, it is still his own responsibility to know what is included in a bill before voting on it.

He's very sorry about it, too. He thinks immediate action should be taken. What's his solution? To draft new legislation that would revoke the exemption? No; it's to trust the SEC to not abuse its new power. It's to "work with the Obama administration and others in Congress" to make sure the SEC still has to tell us what its doing while it holds the future of our economy in its hands. Well, good luck with that, Senator. Maybe next time, you'll read the bill before you vote; but I doubt it.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Free Exchange on Twitter

You can now join A Free Exchange of Ideas on Twitter, arguably the freest (is that a word?) exchange of ideas in history.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Longer hours or better schools?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks they're synonymous.

I wrote last year about the Obama administration's vision for improving our public schools. While the success of the president's Race to the Top program is difficult to rate at this point, his top school official isn't. Speaking at the National Press Club this week, he reiterated his call for extending the school year. The whole argument goes something like this: we instituted summer vacation in a time when most of the country was still farmers and students needed the time off to work in their family fields, but that's not the case anymore. "I think schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 11-12 months of the year," he says. "If you practice basketball five times a week, you're gonna be better than the people who practice three times a week."

I've posted before about the erroneous nature of that argument. Interestingly, I quoted a basketball player in that post, Michael Jordan, who said of longer practice days that "you can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way." Fundamentals, Mr. Jordan instructs us, are what lifts the quality of our efforts, not just how much time we devote to them. Sitting a student down from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening every day of the year isn't going to make him learn; unless you want him to learn to hate school, that is.

To be fair, Sec. Duncan doesn't just want "more of the same". He wants to fix the problems with the schools themselves, to cure overcrowding and insufficient learning resources. He thinks schools should be more along the lines of community centers, with athletic and teaching facilities available to the general public. It's certainly an intriguing idea, and one that could create a greater sense of investment on the community's part. However, it's not necessarily practical.

Neither is a longer school year. Yes, fewer children are "working in the fields" these days, but that doesn't mean they can't make good use of their summer months. Most children, teenagers at least, find other work to do. They get jobs at restaurants, retail stores, and other places that enjoy a hiring boom during the summer. This teaches them practical finances and work skills that they can't gain in a classroom. It teaches them responsibility and hard work, and provides them with other opportunities that wouldn't be available to them if school was instituted year-round.

Also, it provides a much needed break from school. Academics are absolutely important, but as anyone who's been to school can tell you, at some point studying becomes counterproductive. Everyone takes a break, whether from school or work. Even religious leaders take sabbaticals every now and then. Vacations are good for the soul.

Which brings up my next objection: a longer school week infringes upon the free practice of religion, which is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Christians go to church on Sundays, Jews go to synagogues on Saturdays, etc. Eliminating the weekend forces not only students to interrupt their religious attendance, but it puts pious adults in the position of doing so, as well. Many teachers across the country are members of one religion or another, and the sacred day of rest, the Sabbath from which the term "sabbatical" was formed, is just that: sacred.

I believe in school reform and education reform. I know there are many schools, students, and communities that are falling far behind the "accepted" standards and need help improving. Extending school hours isn't the answer, though. I mentioned fundamentals earlier, and in my previous post. They include better recruiting and training of teachers, adequate and up-to-date teaching materials, proper teaching facilities, and strong community involvement. None of those fundamentals are served by having school all the time. The money it would take just to keep the doors open all day, all week, and all year would be much better spent rebuilding decrepit buildings, printing enough textbooks for each student to use, and paying teachers salaries commensurate with the job they do and the responsibility they have. Maybe all that won't work; but it's certainly worth trying before we tell every child in this country they'll only be allowed to go home when it's time to sleep.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Tea Party moves into a new House

In just under a year and a half, the Tea Party has gone from an underreported national movement to an undeniable political force. Thousands of rallies held in every state of the union have testified to the movement's popularity, and the nominations of candidates such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida testify to its influence.

And now, the New York Times reports that the House of Representatives has approved an official Tea Party Caucus, with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (herself a Tea Party favorite) as Chairwoman. The Caucus has 28 members, so far all Republican, though there have been reports that some Democrats have shown interest in joining.

Many have wondered about the future of the movement, its direction and organization. A formal national Tea Party that would exist as a real alternative to the two major political parties has been and is on the minds of many Americans, both inside and outside the movement. Having an official caucus in the House would seem to suggest a certain amount of ambition on behalf of the movement's members. But Chairwoman Bachmann insists the caucus is there for one reason: "to listen to the concerns of the Tea Party." It is not there to be a mouthpiece for the Party or to preempt its message or momentum in any way, and the members of the caucus are not to be seen as "leaders" of the Tea Party. All that may be true; but signing up as a member of this caucus can certainly have significant political ramifications, as evidenced by the fact that the top two Republicans in the House, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, have yet to join.

The Tea Party has always striven for one thing: authenticity. Though there are a number of Democrats and Independents in the movement, and events are typically headlined by "minority" speakers such as Herman Cain and Bishop E. W. Jackson, the Tea Party has been denounced by its opponents from the beginning as fake, ignorant, partisan, racist, and even unpatriotic. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But with every step forward the movement takes, the opposition grows. I can almost see the talking points this new caucus could inspire, especially as regards the Party's goals and ambitions. Will having an official "ear" on the Hill do more harm than good? Time will tell. At the very least, no one on either side of the aisle can say the movement will disappear any time soon.