Monday, January 31, 2005

Why I Don't Do Political Speeches

When people hear that I'm a writer who used to do a lot of speechwriting, they invariably ask if I write political speeches. The answer is no, for the simple reason that I'm an idealist,

I had no problem helping a CEO sound a bit better than he might have been on his own. In fact, that was the explicit assignment a couple of times — to soften one guy's brutal cost-cutter image and to keep an out-of-town raider from offending the locals. I've made the case for defense contracts and nuclear power, no problem. But I wouldn't write for a politico, even one I agreed with.

My rationalization: A CEO represents all the company's employees, customers and shareholders, not just himself. The words of a corporate leader are important, but they're only one thing people use to judge what an organization stands for. Besides, it's a lot of work to craft a good speech, even if you know what you want to say, and a CEO's time is too valuable to spend that way. Especially if they can hook up with people like me.

A political campaign, however, is largely waged with lanuage, and we as voters have little else to go on. We're buying the person who's wrapped in words. Their job is to connect with us, not run a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Certainly, they're packaged and primped and primed, and if I don't do it, someone else will. I just choose not to contribute to that part of the process.

For a glimpse of what the process is like today, see Saving Social Security: A Guide to Social Security Reform. It's the Republican party's field manual for selling privatization... excuse me, personal retirement accounts, complete with talking points and sample speeches labeled: "This speech was developed by Presentation Testing. For more information about how this speech was developed, please contact Rich Thau at Presentation Testing, Inc. at 212-760-4358."

Not written, I noted. Developed.

I take back what I said about government by bumpersticker in the previous post. Though it starts with talking points,
this thing is more than 100 pages long. Allow me to abridge:

• This Nation must always strive to leave behind a better America for our children and grandchildren.

• The longer we wait to take action, the more difficult and expensive the changes will be.

• One of the tests of leadership is to confront problems before they become a crisis.

Hard to argue with that, but oh, how I wish they were talking about dependence on oil, loss of habitat, the current budget deficit or any number of other pre-crises. As for use of the language...

• “Personalization” not “privatization”: Personalization suggests increased personal ownership and control. Privatization connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security; this is inaccurate and thoroughly turns off listeners, who are very concerned about corporate wrongdoing. Present company excepted, of course.

• Talk in simple language: Your audience doesn’t understand financial jargon. Phrases such as “cash flow deficits” and “actuarial imbalance” don’t normally crop up in conversation; avoid using them. Better to use terms like "bankrupt," bankruptcy", and "flat broke," I imagine.

• Keep the numbers small: Your audience doesn’t know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion. Boil numbers down to “your family’s share.” Also avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head—no easy task while listening to a speech—and many will do it incorrectly. You talkin' to me? You talkin' me? I guess not, since down at the SA, I know how to put billions in the billions tray, and when someone comes in with a trillion they want to break, I give 'em a thousand of 'em, or else I bundle 'em up & do a drop in the night safe, right?

• Acknowledge risks: Many of your listeners will not have a lot of financial education or investment experience, but they know that markets have risk—and nothing is guaranteed. They believe investments can grow over time, but they also know they can lose their investments. They don’t trust someone who tells them differently.

• Say it the way they can hear it: Your audience will reject some turns of phrase because of the connotations and associations. The responses are not universal, but they are much less personal than you might imagine.

For example, to most Americans building wealth sounds unattainable—especially in the context of Social Security. But on the other hand, putting aside a nest egg sounds like common sense. Another example: Calling the trust fund meaningless will raise hackles. Taxpayers believe it is the source of the monthly checks paid out by Social Security. But, everyone agrees that it is an empty promise. I read the foregoing several times. For a document on simple communication, this distinction between "meaningless" and "empty promise" seems remarkably opaque.

• Appeal to their sense of legacy: Quote theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffoer [sic]: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children.” Almost everyone embraces this notion. Brace yourself for a rash of Bonhoeffer quotes (or this quote from a "famous theologian") from deep thinkers who haven't cracked a theology book in their lives.

• Offer an alternate reality: Talk about how much more money they’d have for retirement if they themselves had been investing in a personal account all these years. Add that personal accounts would enable young, minimum-wage workers to enjoy dignity in retirement. But don't vote to raise the minimum wage, or support government healthcare programs that might help those workers without employer-provided benefits enjoy dignity right now. Talk about an alternate reality!

Let's close with a quote from a certain famous theologian who was hung in a Nazi concentration camp long before he became a shill for the Republican party:

"We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?"

Governing by Bumpersticker

Welcome Avenue in New Hope, Minnesota, is one of those post-war (three or four wars ago) suburban streets lined with square shake-sided homes the size of a power couple's master bedroom suite. With a parallel freeway sound wall a few blocks away, Welcome offers shortcuts to nowhere. You might find yourself there on purpose if your friends are still trying to penetrate the $40,000 household income barrier. Or if you are meandering back home on a bicycle, looking for streets clear of snow, but without traffic constantly pushing you onto the icy perimeter.

From afar, the red, white and blue hatchback looked like an art car — a vehicle still mobile but having outlived any further possibility of resale, so the body is surrendered up to some final whimsy. Or in this case, protest. No mere bumpersticker montage could encompass this man's rage, which spilled all over the car.

And why not? Ours is the age of bumpersticker discourse, where foreign policy is reduced to a magnetic ribbon and domestic issues can be reduced to a rolling billboard splashed with fetal matter. Expressing an opinion is so much easier — whether sitting in traffic or whipping along in fast lane — when there's no fear of discussion or contradiction.

Above the rear window, press-on letters four inches high croaked: THE POWER TO TAX INVOLVES THE POWER TO DESTROY. Certainly those on the receiving end of our defense dollars would agree, yet I sensed this was not an anti-war car. I wanted to stop and read more but the car was in the driveway, and where anti-tax sentiment resides, can property rights paranoia and Smith and Wesson be far away?

And if he was willing to chat, where would I begin — respectfully pointing out the tautology? Well, sir, isn't destructive potential the very nature of any power? Or perhaps reframing the issue: The Power to Tax Involves the Covenant to Maintain a Healthy Community. Nope, too many words. Lacks the pizazz of, say, Taxation is a License to Steal. Or Whoever Tries to Take My Money Away Will Have to Pry it From My Cold, Dead Fingers.

You would think the King of England had come back to tax our tea bales.

This was no isolated sentiment expressed on an obscure back street by a lunatic fringe. "Taxation is theft" has become the selfish subtext, if not the overt mantra, of our Republican-led government. It advocates freedom and personal responsibility without ever truly acknowledging that community and our obligations to each other carry an honest price.

Of course, I could be wrong, since I did not stop to read the fine print over the wheel wells. This listening to the other guy is hard word.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Don't Discount the Opposing Team

I caught myself doing it again this morning. A newpaper opinion piece titled Don't discount U.S. generosity to the world by former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz began:

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous travels through the new nation known as the United States, noted the generosity of the American people and contrasted it to the old world of Europe. That generosity continues to this day despite the efforts, in Star Tribune deputy editorial page editor Jim Boyd's "A Generous Nation?" (Op Ex, Jan. 16), to state otherwise.

Here we go again, I thought.

Seeing the Boschwitz byline, I started sharpening my knife before I got through the second paragraph. What does de Tocqueville's comparison of frontier America and pre-democratic Europe have to do with today, I fumed, except to provide a pseudo-erudite lead for a piece extolling the Ownership Party line?

I'd previously slung editorial page words in contention with the man Paul Wellstone sent into retirement. One letter differed over healthcare policy. Another responded to a Boschwitz dismissal of Jimmie Carter's criticism of Bush's approach to Iraq, because Carter was "not noted for his grasp of international affairs" or something to that effect. My position: It might be worth listening to a former leader who had won a Nobel Peace Prize and continues to devote his time to democracy and peace efforts worldwide.

Where was my copy of Democracy in America? What did the citation actually say? Did my limited edition have an index? (I'd never finished the book, I remembered, so my habit of making a personal index as I read would be little help tracking down the reference.)

Hawkeyed, I moved down the column in search of distortions. Instead, I found a reasoned and well-supported case for broadening the definition of aid — how American defense spending permits our allies to spend more on development and crisis relief, that private contributions through organizations are undercounted, and that immigrant dollars sent back to family members in developing countries has undeniable positive impact on local economies.

Would his words have gotten through to me a year ago, before this experiment in trying to get over divisions? Or would I have continued in my defensive stance against the opposing team's player? Clearly, the reflexes are still there whenever the away team uniform comes into view, and it's still legitimate to consider how affiliations may signal biases. But it's also enlightening to reconsider your own.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

At Least There Was No Sardinian Toga Party

How interesting that HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy and former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski are in court for manipulating the books and deceiving shareholders at the same time our state's chief executive presents his budget to the people.

Use accounting tricks, count revenues before they're received, and skim income from unsavory activities as a public company, and you'll earn jail time. As a public official, you earn a shot at higher office.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Marking the Divides

Ramble alert...

As someone who grew up just west of the continental divide (in the Congressional district of West Wing's fictional vice president, Bingo Bob), I was keenly aware of how geographic barriers sometimes help highlight philosophical differences. The Western Slope periodically threatened to secede from the Front Range of Colorado, where the rivers and the money flow in the opposite direction.

Inhospitable and difficult to cross, the great divide ran through the middle of the state. The natives knew where it was but very few actually lived there. The divide was just something to get past. The tourists got out of their cars to snap pictures of themselves next to the signs that marked the summit of every pass. So Across the Great Divide naturally came to mind for the title of this blog. It signified for me a clear line of separation that determines whether everything flows left, right or goes nowhere.

The phrase has been widely applied to many apparently unbridgeable gulfs — of religion, class, race and personal relationships. For example, to describe a dialogue between the father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl and a Pakistani Muslim. Or as the title of a blog entry referred to in my first, brief post here. Or as a song by The Band, which, trust me, flows a lot better on record than on a lyrics sheet.

Last week, I was stumbling around the archives of a University of Utah listserv on economics (don't ask!) and came across another reference to the Great Divide. It was made back in 1997 by a retired aerospace engineer, whose pastime appears to be explaining money and finance.

Some day, if you are lucky or clever or thrifty enough you may amass enough personal wealth to cross the Great Divide where your investment income exceeds your living expenses. You can then be an absentee owner calling on the labor of others while you clip coupons, cash dividends, or collect rents.

Wealth begets wealth. Beyond a critical mass, like a chain reaction, it can produce more than it consumes. Obviously only a small fraction of the population can cross that divide. Real wealth is created out of labor, and that leads some to take umbrage at the absentee ownership of capital. Yet unequal wealth is an inherent aspect of a market economy and the capitalist system. Its redeeming feature is that everyone is equally eligible to become a capitalist. Unfortunately it is also true that some are more equal than others.

In my view, the issue has less to do with morality than it does with stability. Can we find an acceptable equilibrium, or will
the political power that accompanies great wealth lead to such serious inequities that it ultimately destroys the system that creates that wealth?

William F. Hummel

Left and right, rich and poor, straight and gay, Israeli and Palestinian. It's naive to think we could all live happily together in the middle, or that we could knock down all the divides in our world forever. But I believe it's worthwhile to mark them, to give them a name and to show which way is which.

Where I came from, you knew there would always be days when you needed to see the other side of the mountain.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Why Can't We Be Friends?

I heard most of an interview with Steven Waldman today on public radio. He's co-founder of a spirituality-oriented Web site called Beliefnet, where you could learn more about the intersection of conservatism and religious faith without feeling like bugs are crawling over your skin.

In an article titled Perverted, God-Hating Frenchies vs. Inbred, Sex-Obsessed Yokels, he lays out ten reasons why liberals and conservatives can't get along — all rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the other side.


1. They're Just As Moral As Conservatives

2. Most Are Religious

3. They Believe History Is On the Side of Tolerance

4. Most Support Separation of Church and State to Protect Religion

5. Family Values Are Revered


1. They're Just As Smart As Liberals

2. They Don't Want a Religious Dictatorship

3. The Pro-Life Position Is Born of Compassion

4. They Feel Under Assault

5. They Believe American Culture Has Become An Insult to God

Also on the weekend, I attended a party where the host was the only person I knew until one neighbor couple arrived late into the evening. Sitting around with strangers — most of whom were about two decades younger and seemed to have known each other for years — would not be my entertainment of choice. I'm a borderline introvert, afterall, and how could we spend the evening talking about me if no one knew who I was?

Although I arrived a bit worn out, I ended up staying late because the conversation was funny and varied, ranging from the dating habits of someone's father, to adopting children from Guatemala, to Frank Lloyd Wright, to the impossibility of remembering the names of the plants growing in front of your new house. Oh yeah, and the primary demographic was gay men, some in pairs and some not.

How many of the righteous right actually know any gays or lesbians? How could they possibly continue to hold their beliefs once they saw what normal life is like for my friends, neighbors and co-workers?

Waldman says in his article:

Liberals believe that historically red state conservatives were on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle (first as conservative Democrats and then as Republicans) and that they opposed much of the campaign for equal rights for women that enabled Condoleezza Rice to be National Security Advisor and Sandra Day O'Connor to be on the Supreme Court. So when conservatives oppose gay rights, liberals see history repeating itself. To grossly caricature both sides, liberals may have been wrong about the Soviet Union but conservatives were wrong about civil rights and women's rights. Liberals look at gay marriage opponents and say, to paraphrase Reagan, there they go again.

Amen, brother.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Taxman's Burden

Reading George Will reminds me of making the rounds of Italian art galleries — working down corridors of massive canvases rendered in classical styles, heavy on the paint and recondite cultural references. ("Recondite" — meaning knowledge that most people would have to look up, signified in a term most people would have to look up — is a typical Williword.)

After your first dozen or so Madonnas, you start picking up the pace, and then consider skipping the next gallery altogether. But occasionally, you find something that breaks the pattern, and you stand admiring it longer than it might deserve.

As with a recent column about Social Security, which begins:

The president's second term will begin today, probably with a flurry of the usual flattery, such as: "My fellow Americans, America is wonderful because you, the people, are wonderful — the way you wear your hats, the way you sip your tea." But his term also begins with Republicans evidently thinking people must be frightened into accepting sensible Social Security reform, and Democrats invoking chimeric "risks" to frighten people away from a reform that enlarges freedom by reducing the degree to which people are wards of government.

The president says Social Security should be reformed because it is in "crisis." That is an exaggeration. Democrats say it should not be reformed because there is no crisis. That is a non sequitur. Social Security should be reformed not because there is a crisis but because there is an opportunity.

We know much persuasive speech relies on exaggeration, from the opinion pages to the advertising pages, and most moderately rational people are able to employ filters against egregious competing claims. "Avert bankruptcy!" cry the repubs. "Abet thievery!" hoot the dems.

But as I continue to remind myself, there is something more subtle and powerful going on. The language used to describe an issue can evoke a metaphor that sets the boundaries of discussion. Let's take Will's introduction as instructive.

Which word is more evocative? Crisis or risk? "Crisis" brings forth imagery of impending doom, claxons sounding on sinking ships, barbarians at the gate, floodgates close to bursting. "Risks" is more of an abstraction, the language of actuaries, not of heroes. If it calls up any imagery at all, we see a stammering Charles Grodin, not a resolute Gary Cooper. "Not a crisis" simply reinforces the idea of crisis and limits where the discussion can go. This is called framing.

By debunking Bush's Social Security scare tactics — not the only thing being indiscriminantly labeled a crisis, by the way — Will had me nodding, right up until "wards of the government."

A cunning phrase, wards of the government. It calls up urchins in Dickensian poor houses ("Please, sir, a little spot o' gruel.") or Thorazine-benumbed patients shuffling past Nurse Ratched. To partake of a benefit toward which one has contributed throughout one's working life is not, say, "cashing in an insurance policy." It's permitting oneself to become a helpless, even contemptible, loser.

Here's one related and more widely used construct: Tax burden.

A burden is not a positive, shared obligation — it's a heavy load. Unlike baggage that can be wheeled through the airport, or checked and carried in the hold, a burden stays on your back. It bends you over, makes you sweat and prevents you from doing what you really want to do. Baggage, at least, includes your golf clubs, tooth brush and clean underwear. A burden probably doesn't even contain your own stuff. A burden is a bale of cotton, and you are a slave.

As for reform, you really don't want to exchange your 100-pound bale for an 80-pound sack. You want to be free of the burden altogether.

Democrats reflexively pick up this metaphor when they try to talk about equitable taxation. They may think they are talking about sharing. To the Republicans, they are talking about slavery.

Let's all put on our frame filters, regardless of who's doing the framing.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Finding Faith in the Basement

Last year — while my state legislature was getting little accomplished and the national political candidates talked past each other — I was renewing my faith in this country. The feeling persists, despite the incessant polarized chatter and deep divisions that admittedly persist.

Looking back, I can see my impulse to get back across the divide shaped by spending time with people in places I once considered wouldn't-get-caught-dead-there foreign locales. Private golf clubs. Suburban town committee meetings. Greyhound depots. And, to illustrate with one example, church basements...

One week in September, I'd joined a friend on the last leg of his cross-country bicycle ride for Heifer International. In the process, I spent more time in church than in the past three decades, weddings and funerals included. Some might say Congregational churches hardly count, with extra points deducted for being in the basement, but my New England sojourn seemed exotic enough to someone who'd long ago wrung out his Catholic upbringing.

We spent our days simply, let them unfold slowly, and concluded each in a similar fashion — with a talk given in a small town church basement, then an overnight in the home of strangers. This last was not my idea of a good time. It seemed like a serial bed and breakfast nightmare, where you're the sole guests and the hosts have no sense of proper professional distance and expect you to say grace, to boot. Instead, it was mundane and glorious at the same time.

No one who took us in was swimming in prosperity. In two towns we stayed with retired couples. Another couple had left New York publishing jobs to raise their kids in a small town, then found their remote freelance work evaporated as magazines folded or cut back post-9/11. He was driving a school bus. She was helping out in the library. A teacher and her husband were enjoying their son's last year before college. The husband had lost his supervisor's job at the local utility and was brought back as a contractor at severely reduced pay. Another family insisted we stay an extra day with them rather than move to a motel for our last night in Maine. They were hosting a German exchange student, too, in a century-old house that was showing its age. Their daughter was dating a lobsterman who lived on an island.

Maybe our hosts were all too polite to talk about the war or the elections, but it also seemed possible they had other concerns. They were proud of their communities and busy with local improvement projects, but were far from parochial. Afterall, as supporters of Heifer, they considered ending world hunger a feasible undertaking.

Even if it wasn't realistic to see this world in the political campaigns, we badly needed a better reflection of its spirit. It's not that I've been politically asleep all these years or removed from my community, but I was not hearing many voices different from mine. While working and building a business, I had, as the phrase goes, other priorities. Over the past year, I found I shared with strangers more than I was able to imagine from my side of the divide.

Okay, maybe the gap between the Maine congregations and me wasn't all that wide. You want a true reality-TV-worthy challenge? Put up traveling fundamentalist legislators with gay biology teachers and civil rights lawyers. How will the country find what's still in common, besides platitudes, if we don't try a little harder to step out of our comfort zones?

The Bill of Rights started by spelling out freedoms of religion, speech and assembly, but didn't enjoin Americans to listen to each other. Today, as we face amendments proposing to restrict freedoms, the speech won't be in short supply. Though I expect a fight, I'll also be looking for ways to listen.

For another take on this, read Faculty Clubs and Church Pews, by William J. Stuntz, a Harvard Law Professor who sees more in common between the two places than you might imagine.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Money Talks 2

Yesterday, I received a forwarded email containing some of the data from the Center for Responsive Politics reported on last month in Is Money Speech? We Know it Talks.

The message contained two lists of consumer products companies, segregated according to the political party that received a majority of their contributions during the last election cycle. It suggests: we "might wish to be mindful of who we patronize relative to their ... donations."

Well, maybe. But it also strikes me as a passive-aggressive weenie sort of protest with a wishy-washy call to action that will send no clear messge to anyone about anything.

Let's take the taste test...

Which product would you boycott?

• Gallo
• Costco
• Hyatt
• Arby's
• Martha Stewart
• Estee Lauder

• Coors
• WalMart
• Marriott
• McDonald's
• K-Mart
• Amway

Let's see, not counting family expenditures over which I have no direct control, the total impact of my annual spending switch should amount to about, oh, $10. Take that, right-wing capitalist pig!

And the point I would have made with my boycotted dollars was? Well, if you support the candidates and parties you believe in, I won't support you, and of course the people who think like you won't support the companies who think like me. At that rate, we should have Social Security solvent, medical costs under control and Peace in Iraq in no time.

Actually, you couldn't get me to set foot in a WalMart or buy a six pack of Coors if they gave a million each to the Democrats and paved over Love Canal with a Paul Wellstone Peace Garden. Whereas Costco and Home Depot both seem to be well-run, humane companies, regardless of where they send their contributions. For many of the companies on the list below, their corporate nature is already abundantly clear, as is the quality of their products, and I spend my money accordingly — largely with independent retailers.

If we truly want to defeat dumb political ideas, expose policies that disproportionately favor certain corporate interests and seek to limit the influence of money in elections, let's do it directly and courageously. Let's engage the people with whom we disagree politically while respecting their right to disagree with us. And if these corporations happen to have crappy products and exploitive employee relations and monopolistic power over their suppliers, let them know how that affects our behavior as consumers. Meanwhile, even monopolistic, big box retailers and brewers of tasteless beer have a right to support candidates of their choice.

For the record, here are the lists from the circulating email (not verified by me against the CRP reports), rearranged by size of contribution, for companies directing 80% or more to one party.

Which product would you choose?

• Estee Lauder, $448K, 95%
• Gallo Winery, $337K, 95%
• Price Club/Costco, $225K, 99%
• Hyatt Corporation, $187K, 80%
• Olan Mills (Portrait Studios) $175K, 99%
• Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, $153K, 99%
• Guess Inc., $145K, 98%
• Triarc Companies (Arby's, T.J. Cinnamon's, Pasta Connections), $112K,
• Calvin Klein, $78K, 100%
• Liz Claiborne, Inc., $34K
• Levi Straus, $26K, 97%
• Magla Products (Stanley tools, Mr. Clean), $22K, 100%

• Brown-Forman Corp. (Southern Comfort, Jack Daniels, Bushmills, Korbel, Lennox China, Dansk, Gorham Silver), $644, 80%
• Outback Steakhouse , $641K, 95%
• WalMart, $467K, 97%
• K-Mart, $524K, 86%
• Amway, $391K, 100%
• Pilgrim's Pride Corp. (chicken), $366K, 100
• Mariott International, $323K, 81%
• Hallmark Cards, $319K, 92%
• Home Depot, $298K, 89%
• Kohler Co. (plumbing fixtures), $283K, 100%
• 3M Co., $281K, 87%
• Waffle House, $279K, 100%
• Circuit City Stores, $261K, 95%
• Procter & Gamble, $243K, 79%
• Brinker International(Maggiano's, Brinker Cafe, Chili's, On the Border, Macaroni Grill, Crazymel's, Corner Baker, EatZis), $242K, 83%
• B.F. Goodrich, $215K, 97%
• McDonald's Corp., $197K, 86%
• Coors, $174K, 92%
• Tricon Global Restaurants (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), $133K, 87%
• Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Smokey Bones, Bahama Breeze),$121K, 89%

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Drumbeat Disguised as a Heartbeat

In his latest novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines a country watching the rise of the Third Reich across a great ocean and through a scrim of isolationism. The Republicans draft aviation hero Charles Lindbergh to stop Roosevelt's try for a third term. A man of few words, Lindbergh stays on message and, after conducting a personal, barnstorming tour around the country and promising to keep America out of a pointless war, he wins in a landslide.

Before long, he has negotiated a peace pact with Hitler, and Jews start receiving opportunities to become better integrated into mainstream American life, starting with an offer to send urban-dwelling Jewish children into the heartland. (The narrator's brother goes to live with a Kentucky farm family and comes back an advocate for the program.) Next, large corporations transfer their Jewish employees to new assignments. There are no rabid rallies and screaming Fuhrers. We watch the country's inexorable slide toward fascism in small steps. While you would be horrified at the conclusion, it's easy to see yourself agreeing with one statement at a time.

On its face, the novel would be easy to read as a commentary on our current leader and his party, but it is deeper than that. Instead of drawing hateful positions broadly, Roth makes them appear utterly reasonable as he persuasively sets forth the Lindbergh government's evolving policy. This duality is personified so appealingly by the president and his wife, an American archetypal couple, made all the more empathetic through the loss of their infant son in the nation's most notorious kidnapping.

Roth's primary effect is to enrich our understanding of how any nation could become complicit in infamy — and to sharpen awareness of how the call to join in evil is more likely to come forth under the guise of piety, peace and following the will of the majority.

Could it really happen here — marginalizing a minority of America's most highly productive citizens? Some will disbelieve, like The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who says the tale "takes place in a political landscape that remains cartoony in the extreme." She must have forgotten internment of Japanese citizens during the real World War Two, and perhaps New York is too isolated to hear a certain national drumbeat disguised as a heartbeat.

Lesbians and gays aren't bad people. (But they threaten the foundation of our society.) We are just defending marriage and family. (And to do so, we must deny the same benefits to them.)

Read The Plot Against America and then listen for yourself.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Remembering What We Were Trying to Do

[T]he most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Graham Allison quotes the German philosopher midway through his book, Nuclear Terrorism, making the point that the U.S. government has had great difficulty staying strategically focused on the war against terrorism. Iraq has proven a terrible distraction from what we need to do, but it is not the only symptom of human stupidity currently manifest in government policy.

For example, missile defense is currently the largest area of spending to prevent nuclear attack. Yet Graham persuasively argues that terrorists using unconventional weapons are our most likely and determined nuclear assailants. They are smart, methodical and have ample opportunity to secure portable bombs or to make them. Our borders admit thousands of illegal aliens, millions of dollars of illicit drugs and who knows how much else through uninspected shipping containers. Does anyone doubt that enemies capable of setting off daily roadside bombs almost at will in Iraq would be unable to park a nuclear-laden SUV in Midtown Manhattan? Graham quotes experts as saying it is not a matter of if, but when another attack occurs.

In the book, he paints verbal pictures of the potential destruction. He also maintains a Web site where you can simulate the impact area of a blast yourself. Just put in your ZIP code (or try 10001 for New York, 20500 for Washington, D.C., or 94108 for San Francisco) to visualize a new address for nothingness.

Graham argues we've lost sight of the original and achievable goal of preventing further catastrophic terror attacks on U.S. soil. Establishing democracy in Iraq, even if it eventually succeeds, is unlikely to deter Al Qaeda's appetite for spectacular and demoralizing attacks on symbolic U.S. targets. And trying to interdict terrorists requires a massive, cooperative international effort, with particular focus on relationships that allow us to penetrate the other side. The war certainly hasn't dome that.

The most workable strategy is to secure nuclear material that could be used in making bombs. Compared to ferreting out sleeper terrorist cells, this is something we know how to do. Compared to the number of new militants we seem to be creating daily throughout the Muslim world, the amounts and locations of fissible materials are finite. Yet Bush cut funding of a federal program to help secure nuclear stocks in the former Soviet Union until he was called on it, and instead of speeding these efforts after 9/11, he sent us into a country that wouldn't even rank in the top 20 of the world's potential nuclear trouble spots.

Graham proposes basing our nuclear terror prevention strategy on denying access to nuclear weapons or materials. This means all nations agreeing on:

• No Loose Nukes—Securing all weapons and materials to sufficient safety standards, the Ft. Knox "gold standard" of protection.
• No New Nascent Nukes—Preventing construction of new national facilities for enriching uranium or processing plutonium, something terrorists are unlikely to accomplish on their own.
• No New Nuclear Weapons States—In particular, North Korea.

Preventing a nuclear disaster would seem to be one of those highest common demoninator issues, where all countries and parties could agree and take action. Whether going after WMD was originally a cynical pretext or an earnest mistake hardly matters now. Iraq has made us forget what we as nation hoped Bush was really trying to do after 9/11. And the more we beat that dead horse, the harder it becomes to get back to the real task.

For more information and other perspectives, see the Nuclear Threat Initiative site and the online overview of National Geographic'sWeapons of Mass Destruction.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Acting on the Truth

Have you ever read a news account about a subject you actually knew well? Not something you had read a great deal about or an event you attended as a spectator, but something you had experienced intimately? Perhaps you were disappointed because it did not come close to describing your more nuanced reality — or maybe in some places it was flat-out wrong. So you resolved to look at all such stories more skeptically in the future.

Have you ever seen a person revealed for someone other than the person you once saw? Most likely you were disappointed, and you resolved to look more deeply, to be more careful and less trusting.

These moments make us conscious that we are mere readers of events, skimming the surface of surfaces. Nowhere is this truer than when we try to come to terms with complex national issues. We don't have the direct experience or command of all the facts, and the motivations of the prime actors remain opaque. So we can think about something else, follow the crowd or do our best to understand.

We scan opinions that appear deeply founded because they are expressed in strong language, selective facts and vivid images — and then gravitate to those that best accord with our own grip on reality. We connect the dots and fill in the gaps, and we call this knowing. And even though we have little to go on beyond the words of strangers and our own intuition, we may call it the truth.

Have you ever been faced with a critical moment of truth and acted to do the right thing? Okay, enough about you. Let me tell you a story.

In the early '90s a man who owned a nearby business was found brutally murdered in his home. Clues indicated that he had taken someone home from a bar with sex on his mind, while his new companion had planned robbery. I worked with a designer who was close friends with the murdered man, and had been at the club with him the night of his death. He was very deeply shaken. Posters covered the Warehouse District where the victim worked, featuring a police sketch of the suspect who had last been seen with him. All this heightened my sensitivity to the crime.

One afternoon, I was running an errand at a shopping center when I saw the man featured on the poster — a short, slightly stocky guy with a blonde Rod Stewart shag. He was walking with a tall, thin, Jeremy Irons type, and they were laughing! Adrenaline sent my heart hammering as I followed the pair, searching for a pay phone where I could call the police without losing track of them.

I could hardly speak from the stress as I explained who I had seen and where they had gone. The operator told me they didn't need me around, to let the police handle it. I waited for awhile to see them arrive, but the anticipation became unbearable, so I went home.

That night I watched the TV news. Nothing. In the newspaper the next morning, nothing. Probably still interrogating them and checking out their alibis. I went to work planning to reassure my friend about the capture of the suspect. On the way, I passed one of the posters.

The face on the poster looked nothing like man I had seen. Not even close.

In the mall, I had seen what my subconscious needed me to see, I was certain, and I had the courage to act upon what I "knew."

Graham Allison begins his book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, with a terrifying, real-life scenario. A CIA agent reports that Al Qaeda terrorists have obtained a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb apparently taken from the poorly secured Russian arsenal. It is exactly one month after the 9/11 attack, and agent says the bomb in now in New York City.

There's no way to independently verify the report, nor to dismiss it. If the report is wrong, warning the city and quickly launching a broad search could spread panic resulting in needless deaths as New Yorkers flee. If there is a bomb, how can it be found with so little information about the threat? Allison walks through the possible responses to what strategists call "the problem from hell."

I'll deal with Allison's thesis on preventing nuclear terrorism in a future post. Here, my interest is the problem of acting when facing what we believe to be a great evil.

Of course, when I fingered my murder suspect, I didn't have satellite photos and weapons inspectors and intelligence and military and diplomatic and political advisors offering conflicting points of view with evidence I had no way of personally verifying. No one died. I didn't lose my credibility among nations. No one called me stupid or wrote articles placing side-by-side the poster and a photo of my suspect.

My impulsive screw-up simply ruined an afternoon of shopping for a couple of guys at the mall.

I still believe the President was wrong in attacking Iraq, and his administration has compounded the error. But I am less inclined to doubt his motives and more empathetic to the terrible choices he continues to face — because we all face them, just not in real-time and without the responsibility to act.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Lesson on Facing Disaster

Now that America has finally given up the hunt for hidden WMD in Iraq, maybe it's time to give up the "See, they lied, and we went to war under false pretenses" letters and postings and crowing. Those of us who got it a long time ago still get it, and those who believed Saddam was involved in 9/11 still think the war is justified.

The real discussion we need to have — and maybe still can — is what can we do about the actual threat of nuclear terrorism. It's a subject that screams for consensus, not partisan rhetorical dirty bombs. I'll have more to say on this later, but for now, let's go to sports.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of a miserable stretch of basketball. Picked by many to at least contend for the NBA championship, they are mired in mediocrity, despite having a solid team culture, led by the best all-round player in the world. High ambitions, noble intentions, quality individuals, yet quagmire. Questions swirl about leadership, team dynamics and the need for a shakeup. Sounds familiar.

So how does team owner Glen Taylor view the proceedings?

According to the Star Tribune, he has encouraged his coach.

"In the past, Flip [coach Flip Saunders] has always kind of figured this out," Taylor said. "Is he struggling now? I know he's struggling because he's tried this and he's tried that. I just encouraged him to keep trying some new things.

"Part of it is the mix of players on the court. Mix some players up, do it a little different. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I'm not one of the guys who's going to say, 'Stupid. Dumb.' I'm going to say, 'Didn't work. Try something else.'"

Taylor, a former conservative state legislator and printing company billionaire, didn't succeed in politics and business by belittling people or bullying them to his way of thinking. In fact, his printing empire is a hodge-podge of companies with an apparently light hand on the corporate controls. A lot businesspeople would share his view that respect and taking the long view will more likely lead you out of complicated situations.

I'm not comparing losing basketball games in Minnesota to losing lives in Iraq — or the relative simplicity of getting a dozen guys to play effectively as a team versus undoing the chaos our invasion helped unleash. Let's simply consider the range of possibilities that open up when we say, "Didn't work" instead of "Stupid."

In fact, something that didn't work may have been stupid, and some screw-ups are firing offenses. But the country didn't fire or trade any top players when we had the opportunity, so we need to win with the team we have. Calling them dumb now is dumber.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Tyranny of the Right

No, I don't mean that right. I mean absolute certainty. The unbearable rightness of being. What the conservatives call the liberal media or elitism. What progressives call bigotry or self-righteousness... no, don't get me started, because I'm trying to swear off labeling. (No, you can't try to swear, say the other voices. You are either with us or against us.)

The other night I was poking around various blogs that opened, Jumanji-like, into parallel universes For Those Who Seek To Find A Way To Leave Their World Behind, as the movie tagline promised. Estimated Prophet: "Progressive, Truth Seeking, Autodidactic Anti-Fascism". Libertarian with a Patrick Buchanan Twist. Blogs for Bush, presumably working for less than the $240,000 offered syndicated columnists.

Pick your preferred echo chamber from those pages. You can ping pong your way forever in the world of your choosing, where no other voices intrude, except to be subjected to ridicule or invective or refutation. This kind of stuff can be fun for about five minutes talking to your friends, but I get a headache imagining all the screaming voices behind those links... Right Wing and Right-Minded. Skippy the Bush. The Left Coaster. And on. And on.

Talking to people about what I'm trying to do here, I don't hear those voices. I hear my dentist, a guy who loves to hunt, goes to Rotary on Wednesday, and tells corny jokes. I hear the colleague who owns a successful business, has adopted kids from Russia and belongs to a peace and justice Catholic Parish. I hear the insurance company executive, the IT manager, the lawyer, professor — all expressing their appetite for a different way of talking about what's important.

A guy yesterday on NPR claimed that protesters at the inaugural were on the side of Sadaam and the terrorists. I doubt he sees it as rhetoric. He has to be convinced he's right, and he will selectively view the facts to support his view. Those on the opposite side will do the same. One may claim divine guidance, while the other appeals to reason and objectivity, and neither will listen to the other except to select people and words for target practice.

Once the shooting starts, it's impossible to have a conversation. But it's hard not to shoot when you're certain you're right.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Out, Out, Damned 20-Spot!

This morning, there's a story about the presumed impact of tsunami relief efforts on local food shelves. As with 9/11, people are responding to the crisis with spontaneous gifts, and perhaps doing a little moral bookkeeping that balances out their contribution against the mac & cheese and pork & beans that formerly went in the food drop.

I've been doing some of that balancing myself — ever since I found a $20 bill last week.

Since I didn't earn it and didn't particularly need it, I resolved to give it away to someone worthy. This has proven tougher than I thought.

For a day or two, waiting for the spirit to move me, I forgot I had the money in my pocket. (Forgotten wealth happens at all levels, apparently. A property manager was showing renovations to the owner of our office building — a massive, block-long former John Deere factory with regional headquarters — and the man commented, "I'd forgotten I had this one.")

Looking for potential beneficiaries as the work week started, I became more attuned to people on the street.

An elderly blind man at a busy corner, feeling the One Way sign and groping for the button that would ensure him safe crossing, not realizing the control was on a separate pylon.

A younger guy dressed in multiple layers, pushing a shopping cart hung with big black trash bags loaded with cans and scrap metal, heading for the salvage yard.

A hatless young mother and her baby waiting for a bus in 15-degree darkness.

A man in a wheelchair, both legs amputated below the knee, making his way along an irregularly shoveled sidewalk.

All of these candidates, it struck me, were African-Americans.

Because I was driving, there was no graceful way to engage with any of these people as human beings, and my commute takes me through a part of town where you do not want to be caught pulling over to the curb and passing twenties through the window. I don't exactly feel guilty about my car — I bought it used and it's the low-end model and it's got the "Another Jaguar Owner for Kerry" sticker — but it does carry some baggage. I could just see myself looking like some big shot stepping out, "Here, you look pathetic. Take money this off my hands."

I wanted to give with dignity — mine, sure, but especially theirs. And how do you do that when you're subconsciously seeking the person who will be most grateful?

Then there's this other voice, saying: "Get over yourself, you tree-hugging liberal navel gazer. It's only 20 bucks! If you went to church, you could put it in the offering and be done."

For liberals, the whole world is your church and everyone belongs. Priorities don't fall as naturally in line as for those who leave the heavy lifting up to God. Save the whales or the snail darters? The rain forest or the polar ice cap? The old blind man or the baby who still has a chance? I want to answer, "all of the above."

Others say, "leave it to the One above." I used to consider that simple-minded, maybe even cheating, like answering the big essay questions with a True or False. Some days, though, it looks like a superior ability to focus, while progressives are still wandering the streets with a 20-spot.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

He's No Jackson

I play golf with this guy who is the whitest man in Minnesota. He's been a staffer for ex-Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and republican fund raiser, but a sweet guy and great father and perfect gentleman. He's a true believer and keeps making me good-natured offers to come over to the other side and one day I do.

As a former leftie/artiste plus entrepreneur/business owner/jobcreator, I naturally catapult to visibility with the highest reaches of the party. Not many of us available. I'm honored to play understudy to the John Kerry surrogate who helped the President prepare for his debates. Right before he went on stage, I even got to smooth down the hump in his jacket left by the transmitter.

Still, I am stunned to find myself in the West Wing one day with a group of the President's closest advisors.

You should know Karl Rove is a competitive little cuss with an inferiority complex a mile wide that he covers with a mean streak, but he's really a softie deep down. Dick Cheney and I trade stories of the oil fields, including the one about the summer I worked in Casper, Wyoming, during the Summer of Other Priorities, and we have a good laugh about the time a rancher shut down 35 drilling rigs because I filled my truck from the wrong water hole on his land. "Now that's something I've never done," he chuckled, and he wasn't talking about pumping water.

And John Ashcroft... Turns out my sister was on one of his holiday ski trips as part of the security detail. He didn't remember her, but we agreed it was indeed a small world afterall, and then broke into spontaneous two-party harmony. Tom DeLay was running late, so they decided to start the meeting without him.

Andy Card introduced Jeanne Johnson Phillips, chairwoman of the inaugural committee. This time, he said, there was no question who won the election, and people were in a mood to celebrate America. Money was pouring in from contributors who'd never be asked to give to another Bush campaign. They were opening the soft money spigots in this one last chance to ingratiate themselves. $40 million. It was going to be some party.

Ms. Phillips started presenting the plans for the inaugural festivities. The theme — A Vision of America commemorating "the anniversaries of two significant events in American history that helped shape our nation — the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s formal inauguration as president in 1905, and the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition reaching the Pacific in 1805."

I could see the President's gaze already starting to wander. She went on to describe the parade, the fireworks and nine official balls that would "allow all Americans to stand together regardless of politics." 

It started to dawn on me... I had been invited because back 1976 I'd written an historical pageant funded with Bicentennial money . It tied together the German tribes' battles against the Romans in with the Dakota tribe's uprising against German settlers and the German settlers' resistance to American involvement in the first world war and ended with all the actors dancing together across the centuries—united by their dream of freedom.

Could they be looking for me to knit together Lewis and Clark, Teddy and George W., with ballroom dancing?

The President's eyes narrowed, "All Americans?"

"All the real ones," Karl responded.

"Sounds good." The President stood up and put his hands together—the sign the meeting was ending.

They were actually going to do this.

"Mr. President," I stammered. "You have an historic opportunity here. The country is sharply divided—not just by politics, but by class. We are at war. Fledgling democracies are springing up around the world..."

Dick Cheney was jerking his chin at Tom Ridge, like he was supposed to tackle me. I plunged onward.

"The moment is not about Westward Expansion or the Bull Moose Party. It is Jacksonian. (God, how I sounded like George Will right then!) When Andrew Jackson was elected, the country was struggling over states rights and distrustful of elitist ruling parties. He knew other countries were still looking at America to see if it would fail. At his inauguration, thousands of common people poured into Washington and took over the party. It was wild!

"Remember Charlton Heston as Old Hickory in The President's Lady? All the farmers came into the brand new White House with mud on their boots and ate all the ice cream or carted away the cheese and Charlton got smashed against the wall until he escaped out the window?"

I was losing them. Must get back on track. Ridge was circling.

"Well, Mr. President, you should not have any balls. You should just throw the inaugural on the White House lawn and invite everyone — every one — to join you for ice cream and to say a prayer for peace. No tickets, no formalities. Just say you're sending $20 million to the tsunami recovery and $20 million to protect Iraqi election workers. Wear your cowboy boots and be yourself."

He was looking intently at me now.

"Invite the kids who were in the classroom with you on 9/11 and show how many of them are reading so much better today. Invite the families who've lost loved ones to terror and hug each one who comes, if it takes all weekend, no TV allowed. Go ahead and cry, if you feel like it. Go for a jog with Bill Clinton and Jimmie Carter in the morning. Keep the speech short, and after Justice Rehnquist swears you in, take him and Nancy Reagan arm-in-arm and announce that you will give tax breaks to private companies funding their own stem cell research.

"It'll be a celebration no one will ever forget. A seismic shift in the national polarization. The..."

The President held up his hands.

"Who is this chickenshit?"

Monday, January 10, 2005

Taking My Hard-Earned Money

We have an insurance agent—call him Lenny—we've never met because he bought the accounts of the agent we started with back in about 1973. Couldn't even get him to take a look at our house after a major remodeling changed its value. "Just tell me what you think it's worth," he said.

Over more than a decade, Lenny has collected his annuity from our stream of homeowners and cabin insurance, umbrella policies for the doctor in the house and car insurance for three drivers (including a male teen) without more than lifting a finger to pick up line 2 when the assistant who handles claims takes a sick day.

That's fine. We want this relationship to be no sweat for us, and it is. Even moreso for Lenny.

I think of him every time I write a premium check, and almost every time I hear people complain about their hard-earned money being seized by taxation—and turned over to undeserving parties such as public transit riders, kids without milk in the refrigerator, stem cell researchers and federal prosecutors.

I'm all in favor of earning money through hard work, and I certainly have no objection to getting it the easy way, as long as it's honest. Where I have a problem is the easy-money guys using the interests of hard-working folks as a cover for schemes designed primarily to benefit the Really Big Lennies of the world.

The discussions about Social Security "reform" are the latest chapter in the age-old story of money's inexorable flow upstream. Although President Bush hasn't yet backed a specific plan, we've heard enough to understand a few things about the Cato Institute's Ownership Society campaign and its supporting "take back possession of your own money from the government" mantra.

1. People take better care of things they own, so individuals will do better by investing for themselves. Granted, most people may be careful with their money, but gambling is widespread, consumer debt has never been higher and Americans habitually spend for the short term rather than save. Meanwhile, Social Security is hardly an example of profligate spending or fiscal mismanagement.

Whether the manage-your-own-money argument resonates with you depends on your metaphor for Social Security. Is it an investment or insurance? Even grandma invests. But how many people self-insure?

2. The sky is falling. Privatization can't stand on its own. The math doesn't work, so it's what Monty Python might call confuse-a-cat time, by inventing a distracting Social Security crisis. It simply ain't so, though too many in the media are still taking the Cato Institute's campaign at face value.

3. Stocks have historically outperformed bonds as a long-term investment. So naturally, people should be able to put their hard-earned money in something that will perform better than stodgy old government-backed securities. Of course, the securities industry's standard disclaimer is true: "historical performance is no guarantee of future results."

4. Even if Social Security isn't broken now, it may be someday. It's courageous to take action in the face of the unknown. George Will seems to argue that since we don't know that Social Security won't fail some time in the future, we should go ahead now and try something we don't know will work. (Go ahead and read that one again. I'll wait.)

I find it encouraging that the truth is making even some straight-up Republicans and neocons back away from the Bush push, according to the Washington Post:

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, is challenging the president's assertions that Social Security is in crisis and that Republicans will be rewarded for fixing it. Republicans are privately "bewildered why this is such a White House priority," he said. "I am a skeptic politically and a little bit substantively."

However, it isn't baffling to readers of Kevin Phillips' American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. The Bushes have no concept of going to work, performing a job and collecting a paycheck, because they've never actually seen anyone in their family do it. Rather, the Bush family fortune derives from fund raising, speculation, arbitrage, tax advantage and occasionally collecting lease payments on land that produced little oil. Ancestor Prescott Bush was a force on Wall Street before he became a Senator, and in the phrase of Elizabeth Mitchell, oil men are "stockbrokers in cowboy boots."

No wonder we're suspicious about the President's motives. No one in about six generations of the Bush extended family will have ever needed a dime of Social Security. But "fix" Social Security now and the Big Lennies of the world start collecting commissions now. The money managers benefit from new inflows of funds. All that money stagnating in the goverment coffers can start pulsing electronic payments to Wall Street accounts.

Bush believes that what is good for wealthy investors is good for America. That low taxation encourages capital investment—and investment is the true engine of American enterprise. Don't blame him for what he thinks. It's all he's known. It was the way he was bought up. It was the way he became a millionaire without accomplishing anything productive except raising public money to build a stadium for a professional baseball team.

But shame on him for roping in the hard-earned money people to support his worldview. This is about easy money.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Highest Common Denominator

I've wondered how international organizations dedicated to reducing conflict in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka might advise us Americans about getting along. Reds and Blues aren't exactly Shiites and Sunnis, but what would be our chances of building a government together if we'd had to start from scratch in 2003?

There's an astonishing array of organizations devoted to keeping groups around the world from killing each other—or at least limiting the long-term carnage. And though their charter may be global, most of the call for their work seems to be for mediating within countries rather than across borders. In other words, among people who should have something in common, but are too focused on their differences.

If you're like me, you'd prefer spend your spare time at the Molly Ivins School of Colorful Invective rather than in a workshop with facilitators and junior college professors learning the twelve skills of conflict resolution. But it takes more than a quick wit and a sharp tongue to deal constructively with conflict. If you need to brush up before visiting the in-laws, visit the Conflict Resolution Network.

Search for Common Ground calls for a non-adversarial approach that focuses on a common problem rather than on each other as the problem, and speaks to everyone's highest place, not the lowest:

"Often when people disagree, eventually they have to meet in the middle and everyone has to compromise. What we're talking about is creating a new, 'highest common denominator.' Not having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards.

"When people care passionately about two sides of an issue, there is usually something of value in each point of view. People's underlying interests, concerns and values tend to be much broader and less polarising than their negotiating positions. When we look from this perspective, the truth of each competing point of view can be appreciated and creative options can be generated that benefit all."

The Public Conversations Project encourages dialogue instead of debate as a way to bridge differences. I've digested some of their principles here:

• Listen to understand instead of to refute. Try to understand the deeper interests and concerns behind people's perceptions rather than trying to change their perceptions to fit your reality.

• Speak to each other as individuals, from your own unique experience, rather than be your side's representative.

• Explore complexities of the issue. Reveal differences within the same side.

• Question the usual language, problem definition and possible solutions that constrain public discussion.

• Demonstrate the values you believe are essential to the process, such as inclusiveness, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.

And if anyone starts rolling their eyes or making sarcastic comments about singing "Kumbaya," be sure you've brought along someone who could credibly kick their ass.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Found Money

Today it struck me. The $20 found between the seats at last night's basketball game was a sign from God.

Like all signs from God, it arrived a little thin in the explanation department. However, having been exposed to enough interpretations of heavenly beacons, I am able to narrow down the possibilities:

A. God wants me to be rich. This is a pretty straightforward interpretation favored by televangelists. I like it myself, but I think God has other plans.

B. Riches will be mine in the next life. I'm checking my planner, and I just don't see an opening until about 2037. Do the riches compound tax-free in the meantime?

C. God wanted to pay for our beers. Thanks. My wife and I spent enough on four Summits to buy an entire case at the Liquor Barrel. With God kicking in, we about broke even, plus tip.

D. God was testing me. He wanted to see whether my first instinct was to snatch up the lucre or leave it for the cleaning crew to find. Flunked that one, but I plan to give it away the first chance I get.

E. God was serving up a critique of current economic policy. Gee, do you think?

I don't know whether the guy who lost the twenty will miss it, but I do know that it makes absolutely no difference to my life—while it probably would for the minimum wage earner who comes by after 10 p.m. to clean up the cups, the peanut shells, the spilled beer and hot dog wrappers. But that's not the way it works.

People like me—comfortable, sitting in the good seats—are the ones who find money, in ways the cleaning crew cannot begin to imagine. Stock tips, municipal bonds, benefits and expenses picked up by our companies, 401(k) matches, capital gains, caps on Social Security taxes, mortgage interest deductions, insurance dodges and tax deductions, frequent flier miles...

We deserve it, don't we? For being born in the right family. For staying in school. For working hard. For taking risk. For working the angles. For refusing to be a sucker. And for not being so stupid as to walk past the money lying at our feet.

Do I have everything? No. Do I need more? Not really. Will another percent of tax or one lost deduction change my way of life? Not so's I'd notice. But you would think there was something unholy about asking the rich to bear more so the poor could sustain just a bare minimum.

God, if I'm wrong on this, please strike me down right now.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Half-Mast Nation

Every morning when I drive past the State Highway Department, I look at the flags out front to check the wind direction. It's a habit formed in the days of running in the winter, when unwittingly starting out downwind could result in a frigid, and even dangerous, return trip. Lately, it seems the flags have spent a lot of time at half mast.

Last month, we mourned a beloved governor. This week, it's the tsunami victims. Next time, who knows? Except that there will be a next time.

We are a pious nation, and as it seems to be turning out, a generous one. We do indeed give disproportionately in the wake of disasters, and unlike other nations (North Korea, where grass is one of the four major food groups, has "pledged" $150 million to tsunami relief) actually deliver on our promises. But we are also capable of simultaneously entertaining great contradictions.

We drive distances we should walk, with ribbon magnets on our SUVs. We feel the pain of business owners, but not of the homeless. We want to solve a supposed social security crisis looming 40 years hence, but ignore today's deficits. We are passionate about protecting every fetus, but not every child.

When you are in this frame of mind, you should not spend the evening in an NBA arena.

We had paid to watch the 15 richest men in the building play a game. The high-decibel music—the identical dozen hip hop hooks that are pounding each night in NBA venues from 6pm Eastern to 10pm Pacific—momentarily gave way to the PA announcer's request that we honor a local solider, a native of Romania who died in Iraq, and we did, clutching beers and jalapeno-stuff pretzels during the national anthem, watching the big screen instead of the flag during the singing because, honestly, who could find the flag in midst of all that sensory overload? Next, the dance team, young women specially bred to practice air-humping, distributed three-foot-long foam french fries to those sitting behind the opponents' basket, thanks to McDonald's and our boys overseas defending our god-given right to make stupid things out of petroleum products.

The Minnesota logo beat the Philadelphia logo, and on the way out, we saw a $20 bill stuck between the seats of two beer drinkers who left early to beat the traffic. It's still crumpled in my pocket. I don't think I can spend it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

What Do You Believe?

Each year since 1998, John Brockman has posed a single provocative question to a wide selection of scientists and other thinkers, and then published their responses on Edge, his Web site devoted to matters scientific. (I'm providing the site link at the bottom of this piece, because if you happened to hit it in the middle of this paragraph, you might not be back for week.)

I've only begun to dip into the hundreds of responses, but I've seen enough to add Edge to my recommended sites. I expect to return there to graze when I'm momentarily stuck or want to find an interesting book to read. I now realize that it was his 1999 question, "What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years?," that prompted my to come up with my own answer: spectacles.

The latest question was: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

Although posed in a scientific context, it's a pertinent question here, because one defining aspect of the Great Divide is that some people want to advance positions or make policy decisions based on reason, while others argue from beliefs ("values"). Both ardently believe the other side ignores important evidence. And one of the respondents, Roger Schank—psychologist, computer scientist and author of "Designing World-Class E-Learning"—seems to agree:

"I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made — who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them."

It would be easy to answer this question for the Party in Power (PIP), of course. WMD in Iraq, gay marriage as harmful to heterosexual marriage, Social Security is failing, Heaven and Hell... The list would be a long one, and we rational progressives could have a good chuckle over it, while missing the vital point. The PIP doesn't feel the need to prove anything.

Belief is not stupid or inherently intolerant. As the answers to Brockman's question illustrate, belief can be adventurous and provocative, not simply medieval. But what happens when virtually every decision is based upon belief, not objective standards, evidence or scientific proof?

In the next four years, we may find out. But meanwhile, let's have some fun with a compelling question.

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? Please add your comments below. To get you started, here are a few samples from the scientists:

Nicholas Humphrey
Psychologist, London School of Economics; author,"The Mind Made Flesh"

I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance — so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.

Alison Gopnik
Psychologist, University of California, Berkeley; co-author, "The Scientist in the Crib"

I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.

Michael Shermer
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Columnist, Scientific American; Author Science Friction

Morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces, not divine command.

The moral feelings of doing the right thing (such as virtuousness) or doing the wrong thing (such as guilt) were generated by nature as part of human evolution.

Although cultures differ on what they define as right and wrong, the moral feelings of doing the right or wrong thing are universal to all humans. Human universals are pervasive and powerful, and include at their core the fact that we are, by nature, moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and non-virtuous. Individuals and groups vary on the expression of such universal traits, but everyone has them. Most people, most of the time, in most circumstances, are good and do the right thing for themselves and for others. But some people, some of the time, in some circumstances, are bad and do the wrong thing for themselves and for others.

Donald Hoffman
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine; author, "Visual Intelligence"

I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists...

The world of our daily experience — the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds — is a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm.

Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as the Windows interface on a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits.

David Buss
Psychologist, University of Texas, Austin; Author, The Evolution of Desire

True love.

I've spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I've documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I've discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women deceive and manipulate each other. I've studied mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators, and spouse murderers. But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Don't I Know You?

I ran into this guy at the dinner celebrating the retirement of Lindsay Whalen's basketball jersey. For those of you who don't know her, she was named Minnesota's Sportsperson of the Year—in the same year solid citizen Kevin Garnett won the NBA's MVP award. There was not one iota of political correctness in her selection.

He shook my hand and called me Neal. I'm not, I said. But I know you from somewhere, he insisted. I go to a lot of games, I offered, but knew he was mistaking me for someone else.

(I'm always careful to re-introduce myself to anyone I've met before in case they can't place me. Protects my ego and saves them embarrassment. And it's kind of fun to grope from mutual befuddlement to discover a remote shared experience. But there's no early warning defense against people who think they know you because you remind them of someone more famous than you are. My greatest fear when attending Timberwolves games was they'd do that roving-scoreboard-camera-celebrity-look-alike-bit, and my picture would show up next to Eddie Albert's with the Green Acres theme playing.)

Back at the banquet table, I mentioned the encounter to my wife, who said, he probably thought you were Neal Whalen—and she was probably right. Neal must be a stellar father, judging by his daughter. I'd be proud to be considered in his class as a parent. Meanwhile, I plan to shed a few pounds.

I had a similar sense of recognition not long ago. There was something familiar about my mission for this blog: Engage with important issues. Be opinionated, but seek facts and look at both sides of a question. Don't trash the opposition. Be literate and reasonably concise. Don't be corrupted by advertising.

I know I've seen... Oh, yeah—it's the liberal media... a newspaper! Except that a newspaper covers a broader range of topics. It wouldn't allow rambling and personal references like this. And I could get fired for missing deadlines or screwing up the facts.

This approach seems so fresh in the blogosphere, though, and that's pathetic. If blogs supplant real newspapers, we deserve the government we'll get.

One important P.S. It's been a while since I listened to a coach giving a speech, let alone four at one sitting, and I'm willing to wait a long time until the next jersey retirement ceremony. Intellectually, the program was a string of platitudes, but they were pitched at a level that so many Americans seem hungry for today—and I don't just mean at sports banquets.

Mike Thibault, the Connecticut Sun coach who drafted Whalen, was classic. For part of his after-dinner remarks, he gave the coach's equivalent of a stump speech, based on BE GREAT, with each letter signifying one attribute of a winner. Balance. Energy. Genuine. Or Grace. Or Guts. You can probably give it yourself.

Myself, I would've liked a shred of nuance or one profound insight. It would've been easy to ridicule, except that it was all true, maybe even inspiring if you're still figuring out your place in the world: We're really good people. Hard work is worth it. You make the choices—not somebody else. Forget individual glory and be willing to sacrifice. Attitude makes a difference. Values matter most.

Moral: Read the newspaper, go to sports banquets and avoid eye contact with strangers. But also, more Wellstone, less Kerrey.

Outsourcing Compassion

When President Bush was slow to respond publicly to the recent tsunami devastation in the Indian Ocean—and then offered aid comparable to what someone far down the Coalition of the Willing list might commit to Iraq—he was criticized for his lack of compassion. His spokesperson countered: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'"

Then the rest of his defenders chimed in with: "[H]e rightly concluded that there was no point to seizing the tragedy for political gain and making public statements that won't do anything to help the people affected by the Tsunami."

And: "Yah, Clinton was always parading at natural disasters without actually doing anything except boinking his intern." Or something like that.

Now with raises to the government-sponsored aid in the pot approaching 3/5ths of Japan's, we see more evidence of the crafty Texas poker player we have in the White House.

He enlists his father and Clinton to lead America in a show of bi-partisan compassion, saying, "The greatest source of America's generosity is not our government; it's the good heart of the American people."

Can you spell jiu jitsu?

I won't get into it here whether America is really stingy when it comes to foreign aid. Or whether France should've sent aid to Florida after the hurricanes. Talk Radio has too high a signal-to-noise ratio on those topics already. Let's just step back and look at how skillfully Bush has used this occasion to reinforce his key message: America is not the government. The Government is not you. You don't have to send your money to the government.

Maybe Bush didn't seize upon the tragedy as quickly as his predecessor. But no political gain? Oh, my, this guy is good.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Is Money Speech? We Know it Talks.

Today I got a copy of The Hightower Lowdown, a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law and her partner who live up in northern Washington, a tad closer to land (or more properly, farther from urban wretchedness) than I care to.

The current January issue presents Federal Election Commission data compiled by the the Center for Responsive Politics, showing how various industries concentrated their dollars in the 2004 campaign. In focusing on contributions to the GOP, the article is deliberately one-sided. But then so were the donations in industries such as Timber, Restaurants and, yes, the Media.

Next, look at the Top 100 donors and you'll see the list top-heavy with representation from labor and trade associations that favor the Democrats. This is really a good resource for digging into some of the facts after accusations start flying back and forth about the influence of money on national elections.

There's much more fun to be had on the site. For instance, drill down to position number 95. Poor Enron! After years of big donations solidly in the red column (71% of $2.5 million in 2000), it's gone even-Steven—albeit with a paltry $36.9 thousand. For each company, you can also drill down to see what its top individual donors gave.

If all this snooping doesn't feed your paranoia or satisfy your morbid curiosity, you can look up your friends' and neighbors' political contributions on It also draws upon the FEC database and allows you to search by name or address.

New Words for Old

Well before I started this blog, I began collecting words that symbolized for me the widening gap between progressive and conservative world views. I'd envisioned a book project called Red, Blue and White that would present side-by-side conflicting definitions of words like:
Activist Judges
Class Warfare
Death Tax
Marriage Penalty
Trial Lawyers

The concept was to overprint the pages with red and blue so that a definition could only be read by viewing it through a red or blue filter. It was going to be bi-partisan, I just couldn't decide whether to make both extremes look reasonable or stupid. Then there were questions of how to actually produce the book and whether it could be distributed and sold. It was entirely possible I could labor over it for a year before I discovered it simply wasn't feasible. (You begin to see why conceptual art took off in the '60s. Thinking up the concepts was a lot of fun, but all that execution could get to be drag.)

Once I got going on this and discovered how easy it was to publish a blog, I decided to make the project more dynamic and put it on the Web. Rather than add it here, where the periodic updates would get mixed in with the rest of the posts, I created another blog, called The New Words Project. There, I can continue to add words, solicit comments and new submissions, and gradually build a lexicon of exhausted words and new language.

If you're interested in how and why we talk around each other, pay The New Words Project a visit.