Category Archives: Essays

Essays

Poverty – The Experience

Courier Times Photo
That’s me (unemployed) in line to get my lights back on. (Courier Times Photo)

I’ve never experienced real poverty. I’ve lived on a restricted budget as a college student and as a young married parent. I’ve never gone hungry, or been at risk of being homeless, or at my wits’ end about where to go or what to do simply survive.

But I got a glimpse of what it feels like by participating in a clever and realistic simulation presented by Bucks County Opportunity Council. The simulation lasted only an hour (four 15 minute weeks) but it drove many of the participants frantic with frustration.

We had to deal with bureaucratic delays and lines, lack of time and resources to do the basic things needed to pay bills, buy food, get to and from work, care for our children. We faced exploitation by payday lenders and banks.  We could easily imagine the plight of those in poverty, as we tried to juggle priorities and prevent eviction, utility shut-offs, missed meals. We experienced frustration, outrage, despair, and seething anger.  Little wonder that marriages fail, children get into trouble, and adults resort to crime. Life with few prospects and little hope can drive a person to desperation.

The take away is profound empathy for people who can’t make it without public assistance. They not only need help to survive, they need emotional support and encouragement in organizing to get on a path to self-sufficiency. Going it alone is a recipe for failure.

The Bucks County Courier Times writer James McGinnis described the experience well:

Poverty CT 181025

Don’t assume that those you love are above this situation.  Wages have not grown with the rest of the economy. In real dollars they have been flat for decades.  In the sixties we though that shelter should cost about 25% of a families income. Now families spend 30 to 50% to keep a roof over their heads. Recent surveys show that a shocking 80% of working families live paycheck to paycheck and have little or no savings. A $1,000 emergency becomes a crisis. Poverty is just one home accident or bit of bad luck away.

Each minimum wage job pays about $15,000 a year before taxes. It takes $60,000 a year for a family of 4 to live independently in Bucks County.

To make ends meet, an unskilled or semi-skilled person and their spouse might need three or four jobs. Minimum wage jobs rarely offer benefits or even stable employment. Nor are they easy or fun.

The MAGA Bomber

Thirteen small but potentially deadly bombs were mailed to left-leaning celebrities critical of President Trump. The reaction of media commentators and social media echo chambers will provide much for social scientists and journalism professors to study and write about in the future. The sequence of events as new facts emerged reveals how irrational people become when confronted by information that is not in harmony with their tribal beliefs.

View from the Left

Most of those not aligned with the right immediately blamed President Trump for publicly encouraging hate and violence and for conspicuously being slow and tepid about condemning it. They also noted that the characterization of leftist demonstrations as “violent mobs” deepens the fear and animosity felt by both sides.

One theme in several articles was “Stochastic Terrorism” – a theory that suggests that there are always a certain number of unstable people among any political group that may be moved to act by hearing rhetoric that suggests hate and violence. Thus, although no specific call to action was made, the law of averages kicks in, and a susceptible person commits an act of terror.

View from the Right

It was clear from the start that there was a partisan motive behind the targeting of the bombs. The right-wing commentators (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, among others) promptly seized the opportunity to speculate that it was a liberal plot, a “false-flag” ploy, invented on the eve of the midterm elections, to drive voters away from GOP candidates. “Republicans just don’t do these things,” Limbaugh opined.

The Accused’s View

As I write this, I don’t have a quote from the accused bomber himself.  His lawyer says that he saw Donald Trump as a father figure. His van is plastered with partisan pictures that extol GOP leaders and Trump, and show prominent Dems with cross-hairs superimposed. As it turns out, he is something of a celebrity at Trump’s rallies, having been frequently photographed enthusiastically waving placards.

It’s clear the accused is what he appears to be – an over-the-top right-wing zealot whose passions drive him. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t explode, and the bomber left fingerprints and DNA that authorities were able to trace. Although police sought to cover the van’s incriminating artwork, it was so over-the-top that several individuals came forward with photos made long before the bombing.

The Silence

Those who were pushing the idea of a left-wing conspiracy have fallen silent and turned their attention to other matters. The late night comics made jokes about everyone knowing that the Dems are not well enough organized to pull off such a conspiracy. But even the conservative Weekly Standard couldn’t resist calling out the lords of loud on their implausible false-flag spin of the bomb threats.

What’s to be learned?

I offer a video sent to me by a North Carolina GOP partisan. She evidently found it very persuasive and forwarded it to show me how she feels and what she finds credible. This video is viral in her network with over one million (1,000,000) views logged. What about it makes you skeptical?

 

Journalistic Credibility

If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I have my attention of what allows ordinary people to judge what’s credible in the flood of information and the limitless sources we have access to these days. I speak on the topic and other posts in this blog share what I’ve learned so far.

The CEO of  Mother Jones published an essay that is remarkable in its candor about her own thought process. As an amateur, I has assumed that career writers had all this sort of philosophical stuff sorted out. Clearly this is not so.

“Our journalism comes from somewhere. It comes from a passion for justice, fairness, and a democracy where facts matter and all can participate. That’s not a partisan agenda, because these values are bigger than party. But it is a point of view.

Monica Gauerlein, CEO Mother Jones 

In her essay Stand for Something she makes a case for journalism NOT coming from nowhere, not being without a clear viewpoint. She distinguishes this from bias.

No Bugs?

(Be Careful What You Ask For)

Our species (humanity) has reached the degree of control over our environment that we can alter the balance of nature globally. Yet we have no effective means of governing ourselves globally. That’s a problem.

We keep getting warning signals of the danger. A recent news item reported:

45 PERCENT DECREASE
Bugs are disappearing. Biologists estimate that the population of invertebrates such as beetles and bees has decreased 45 percent over the past 35 years. The number of flying insects in German nature preserves dropped 76 percent in a similar amount of time. And a new study found the same thing in a “pristine” Puerto Rican national forest. The animals that eat the insects are disappearing, too: The population of the Puerto Rican tody, a bird that eats bugs, dropped by 90 percent. “Holy crap,” an expert in invertebrate conservation said to the Post. [The Washington Post] via NumLock.

Some of our politicians seem to be waiting for a sign from God. I suggest that, at least in Biblical terms, we have had many: fires, floods, epic storms, lethal heat waves. It’s time to step up and take stewardship of the planet seriously.

Credibility

(My Presentation on 10/9/2018)

I made 100 copies of the handout expecting to have about half of them left over – we ran out!  At 7 o’clock when we started most of the seats in Penn Hall were filled. I talked for about 50 minutes and was gratified to see people’s attention riveted. Comments afterward revealed that they too are very interested in finding ways to judge the authenticity of information that comes their way.

Here are the links for the videos in the Slide Show

Doubling Down?

The Washington Post reports that President Trump has uttered a total of 4229 false or misleading statements. They observe that in the last six months he has succeeded in doubling the record-setting first year. (The Toronto Star pegs it at 2,083 as of 7/28, but Toronto is a long way from the source.)

This mendacity may be a common human frailty writ large, as is so much that The Donald does. He has long been known for a curious relationship with the truth. He gets an idea, he envisions it to be true, he declares it to be true, and he then believes that it is true even when confronted with objective facts that contradict what he “knows.”

Entrepreneurs can be very single-minded, and difficult to dissuade once they lock on to an opinion or a course of action. They usually have consummate confidence in their “feel” or intuition in the absence of complete facts. That is, I suggest, why entrepreneurs arrive first at new opportunities — it’s also why three out of four new ventures fail.

Trump isn’t likely to be accused of overthinking anything. He’s used to making big plays where the stakes are high. His dad taught him that in life and in negotiation he must never voluntarily yield or admit error. That only diminishes his leverage.

Not overthinking and not admitting mistakes is an exceedingly poor learning model.  The natural process of learning is to form a vision of the needed actions, take action, observe results, update the vision, and keep on.  Leave out the observation bit, and it’s easy to go way afield of reality. We are seeing that pattern in Washington.

Presidents preside over stuff. That should be obvious. The President of the US presides over vastly more than he or she can possibly personally track. The nature of the job is to choose good subordinates, delegate, be an astute observer, and manage people well — not strong talents of The Donald. The rapid turn over, the flood of critical books by ex-White House insiders, and the large-scale blunders speak for themselves. The Whitehouse under Trump is far from the agile learning organization that the country needs.

Reality is undeterred by being ignored and has a nasty way of whacking us up the side of the head if we try.

 

What’s Energizing Immigration Drama?

The Wall and now the administration’s treatment of undocumented people are far more energizing symbols to the Trumpist than any realistic evaluation of the underlying social problems immigrants bring.  The rhetoric suggests people who don’t look like “us” (descendants of white northern European immigrants) and don’t speak our language (English) bring crime and are a social burden. But the facts say otherwise: they work, pay taxes, and abide by the law. Indeed they contribute more than they take.

So what’s the hidden problem here?

This meme taken from a Facebook post on a conservative’s newsfeed is core to the bedrock fear of Trumpists: their vision of the good life in America is being eroded. They see immigration as a threat.

When I saw this the words “… impose their culture and beliefs upon this country while at the same time destroying or removing the traditions and beliefs we call dear …” I remembered a viral email I wrote about two years ago.  I think that email captures something that progressives can’t or won’t see: a cultural identity issue.

 

 

Here is the link to that 2016 pre-election essay. I think it is just as relevant now as then, and I’d only change one paragraph. I’ll let you see if you can identify what I would revise…

The “Silent” Minority

Americans Are Being Played

GOP political strategists are good at what they do and they have been at it for at least four decades culminating with our forty-fifth president.

Lee Atwater is credited with coining the phrase “Perception is reality” back when Michael Dukakis fell to the Willie Horton weak on crime meme.  Atwater worked with Karl Rove, Paul Manifort, and Roger Stone who devised a set of strategies that have given the GOP a lock on winning elections across America. This is not a conspiracy theory, it’s crafty application of combative propaganda techniques in a political culture where winning is the only option and nobody who counts cares how it’s accomplished.

Here’s how perception is manipulated to play the media and the American people, to game our democratic systems, and to get a lock on the levers of power.

Lies to Truth in Ten Steps

Here is Robert Reich breaking down the steps:

It is a progression that muddles people’s ability to distinguish truth by creating an illusion that many people accept and believe what started as an easily disproven lie.  Lie … disputed fact … partisan divide … alternative fact.  When people rely on what they think others find credible perception shifts. Truth becomes a perception and not a rational assessment made by weighing the evidence.

Gaming The Media

Manipulating the media has become a profession in our age of ratings and for-profit news coverage. Keeping the numbers up is a survival issue for print, radio, and TV.  Fox News has demonstrated that news as entertainment captures and holds audiences. Outrage and drama fuel good ratings. Authenticity, fact, and nuance – not so much. Here is Reich again to illustrate how deception can prevail even with the best efforts of our free and independent press.

By creating the perception that the media is unfair and biased, all criticism becomes suspect allowing bold lies to persist.

It is no accident that public funds for non-commercial radio and television have been cut by GOP legislation. It’s also intentional that Sinclair Broadcasting has been allowed to acquire rural radio stations across the nation. Control of the media is control of perception.

Fostering Corrosive Doubts and Fears

Doubt and fear fog the intellect and cause humans to fall back on more primitive coping mechanisms.  This opportunity is exploited by human predators to get over on others.  Sociopaths and domestic abusers commonly “Gaslight” victims using the tactics Robert Reich attributes to Authoritarianism in this clip:

The Impact on Individual Perception

The effect of all of these tactics is very personal. By messing with our perceptions, by playing us, our mood and our general outlook is altered.  In this last clip Reich characterizes four syndromes…

Robert Reich is a gifted teacher and an experienced political insider who is very self-aware and who now has a large following of youthful progressives. He is doing great work to show what’s behind the curtain in the political theater we are bombarded with daily. He’s worth following on social media.

Gun Humor … HUMOR??

The wonderful and inspiring activism of the Parkland HS students has engendered an ongoing dialog in social media between gun enthusiasts and those who want guns regulated or banned.  Netflix did a special featuring comedian Jim Jefferies.

Watch it here …

And the second part …

 

Jeffries confronts the faulty logic and lapsed common sense of many pro-gun arguments.  Perhaps humor is the best way to do this.

 

It’s “Freedom’s Safest Place.”  [NRA video theme]

Maybe they are afraid.

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