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.