Monday, May 25, 2009

Bonanza Column 155 – Memorial Day

The National Memorial Day Concert from the Mall in Washington, D.C., is as much a part of the holiday as picnics, a day off, and flying the flag. This year's concert was the 20th annual, and if you missed it you missed something really special.

The annual concert has all the elements – patriotic songs, flags and uniforms, moving tributes, and most of all the memory of those who served and gave their lives. This year's concert also focused on those who, while they may have physically survived their combat, will never be the same. A case in point is José Pequeño, a Staff Sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard who volunteered to deploy to Iraq. While on duty, he was calling in about a suicide bomber when an insurgent tossed a grenade into his Humvee. He lost the bottom two lobes of the left side of his brain, and doctors held out very little hope for his recovery. His mother Nellie and sister Elizabeth went immediately to his side and remain there over three years later. At the concert they were front-row center.

As with most severely brain-damaged patients, it was very hard to tell how much of the proceedings José was taking in. His body is stiff and contorted, his head twisted to the side, his mouth open. His mother and his sister were in physical contact with him the whole time and talking to him as he was praised and saluted, standing as a symbol of all the severely injured and disabled veterans, and particularly of those with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

I have no use for war as an instrument of foreign policy; at the same time I recognize that, from time to time, wars will be fought, young men will die, and those who live will be forever changed. I'm not a pacifist. I believe that we must defend ourselves, our freedom, and our way of life when it is attacked. Moral choices are not always easy choices, but they must be made.

At the same time, I believe that wars of aggression, wars of pre-emption, are profoundly immoral. In hindsight it's easy to say that we would have been justified had we attacked the Empire of Japan before December 7, 1941, but it's easy to be right in hindsight, and we still hold that particular pre-emptive strike as one of the most immoral acts of warfare ever – would it have been less immoral if we attacked them instead? I think not.

The war in Iraq, where Sgt. Pequeño gave what amounts to the last full measure of devotion to his country and his comrades – where his young life effectively ended – is a war born of a pre-emption that was questionable at best. Everyone but the very few diehard defenders of the war has admitted that the intelligence was flawed, to put the absolute best case forward – falsified is closer to the mark.

Until 1950 almost all the wars fought by the United States were fought to throw off the yoke of tyranny (the Revolution), to meet aggression (the War of 1812, WW 1, WW 2), or to preserve the values on which the country was founded (the Civil War). In every one of these cases we emerged from the horror of the wars stronger and sounder as a nation. We had done the right thing, respecting the cost but not stopped by it. There were a few aggressive wars in there – the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War – and we can't say that these left us better as a country. Since 1950 we have had a series of wars of questionable provenance – Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, and now Iraq.

When the moral compass of those in power wavers and becomes shaky, young men like José Pequeño pay the price. In the small town where I grew up there was a statue of a WW 1 Doughboy inscribed "Lest We Forget." If we do forget, then the sacrifices of the José Pequeños will be in vain, and that will be the end of us as a nation.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tahoe Ticker Column 3: Climate Change

I've worked in a number of areas over the years (decades?), but they've all had something in common. In every case, the people who were most prominent and respected in the various fields were those who stuck very close to the evidence.

I began my career in brain research, and that's kind of a no-brainer. You do what you do, measure what happens, analyze the data, and report out on what it shows. As a clinical psychologist it was a little less clear, but I quickly learned that therapy was most effective when it dealt with what was actually happening in the patient's life, and interpretations and advice worked best when they stayed close to the facts.

In business consulting, one of the most highly respected books in the field is "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. I've talked to Collins about the research and writing that went into that book, and what struck me was the integrity of his sticking to the data even when it didn't go where he expected it to go. One of the major findings in that book is the importance of leadership in moving companies from being good and solid to being great. Jim had believed that leadership was an overrated concept, and was chagrined, annoyed even, when the data said otherwise.

So why is it that when the conservative forces in this country and the so-called Christian Right have a problem with an issue of science, evidence and the scientific method suddenly don't matter? Take climate change. The data are not 100% on either side of the question. If the 20th Century taught us anything, it is that science doesn't allow for absolute certainty. So scientific inquiry proceeds based on the preponderance of the evidence, not "beyond a reasonable doubt."

I'm not an expert on climate control, so when I want to learn about it I go to those who are – climatologists, geologists, earth scientists, marine scientists, etc. As a scientist myself, I look with great skepticism at, say, an economist making statements about climatology. The Right, apparently, has no such problem. Those on the Right who would have us believe that climate change isn't a problem, or that human activity is not a factor in what from the evidence looks like a potentially disastrous trend toward warming seem willing to quote economists, government professors, doctors, pretty much anyone who will say what they want to hear. On the scientific side of the argument, the alarm is being raised by people whom we would expect to know what they're talking about – who have done the research, gathered the data, and who, to my relatively untutored eye, don't seem to be straying too far from the evidence. Yet the Right seems to want to play "we have as many 'experts' as you do," and expects that to carry the argument.

With a bit of a twist, the situation is the same with stem cell research, Scientifically, there is no question that stem cells hold the possibility of great medical advances. Many people oppose stem cell research on what amount to moral grounds, particularly where the cells are derived from embryos. I don't agree with them, but I can respect their moral convictions without endorsing them. What I can't respect is cloaking those moral arguments in arguments about the efficacy of stem cells, arguments the data simply do not support.

And don't get me started on evolution vs. creationism. If you want to believe in creationism, great, but don't try to use science's always being open to new evidence to cloak what is, at root, a religious, not a scientific position.

The point is, let's stick to the data.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bonanza Column 154 - Volunteers

I've said it before and I will say it again – Incline Village/Crystal Bay is the home, or at least the West Coast Distribution Center, for "no good deed goes unpunished." The latest is the spate of letters to the Bonanza taking the volunteers on the Nuisance Ordinance Committee to task for being "self-serving" and "power hungry." Give me a break!

In this town of some 9000 "residents" (only about half of whom live here full time) there is a handful of people who actually work for the betterment of the community. There are the 5 IVGID Trustees, the people who serve on advisory committees for golf, tennis, skiing, etc., the people who volunteer for Parasol, Project Mana, Tahoe Women's Services, and other worthwhile organizations (sorry if I left anyone out – I can't list them all, probably don't know of them all). Then there are Red, White, and Tahoe Blue, the Nuisance Committee, and the people who volunteer at churches etc. I would guess, given the overlap in all these groups, that it might amount to 500 people or so. These are the people who care enough about the quality of life in our community that they actually give of their time and themselves. Others may give money, go to fundraisers, and the like, but these are the people who use those funds to execute on the vision and mission of those organizations.

On the other hand there is a group that I suspect is much smaller – certainly it's the same 5 or 10 people who write the letters to the Bonanza, but let's say they represent another 20 or so – who just can't stand to see anyone try to do anything positive. They have a Constitutional right to express their opinion, and far be it from this opinion columnist to say they shouldn't, but really – do they have to insult the commitment of the people who actually do something?

Self-serving? Please tell me whose selfish interest is served by a committee that is trying to work out how to have junk cars removed from people's lawns, or excess noise curbed, or eyesores like the Orbit station removed? Does anyone on the committee own a car removal firm or make money off things being quiet (?!), or maybe someone owns an ugly former gas station removal company? I don't think so.

Power hungry? What power? The power to serve on the IVGID Board and get abusive phone calls at 3 am? The power to … I just don't know. I mean I can't even make this one make sense.

Oh, I know – the power to exclude people from the beaches! No, that's in the CC&R's that founded the village. Maybe the power to keep people from sitting on the sand to watch fireworks. No, those same people buy punchcards at their own expense to make sure no one is excluded. Maybe the power to cloud men's minds. No, that's Lamont Cranston, the Shadow.

What rot! What utter balderdash (sorry, but it's a family newspaper). These people are volunteers – they are people who contribute and give back. I guess they shouldn't do that – they should stay home and write letters maligning the commitment of those who care enough to actually do something positive rather than whine and complain.

As I said, give me a break. You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem. Which side are you on?:

Friday, May 01, 2009

Bonanza Column 153 - Hypocrisy

This is supposed to be my "off" week, but Andy is still on holiday and when I get a request from an ardent fan, it's hard for me to ignore it.

You may recall that in last Friday's paper, my long-time reader Bill Silcox requested that I "explain what U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (and by inference, President Obama) meant when she wrote that returning veterans should be investigated as right–wing extremists, according to a nine-page report that was made public on April 14." He said my view will be "of interest," and I really can't fail to respond to a request like that from an admirer.

The problem is, I can't exactly respond because Bill doesn't have it quite right. According to Fox News among others, the DHS report in question contained a caution that returning veterans might be targets for extremist recruiters, and that we should be aware of that. Granted, not the most delicate thing to suggest, but a long way from saying that the veterans (not the recruiters) should be investigated as right-wing extremists. Further, when Napolitano realized what the report said and how it would be taken, she publicly and openly apologized for it and did so personally and face-to-face with the head of the American Legion, who graciously accepted her apology. Both the actual substance of the report and the Secretary's apology were widely and respectfully reported on both sides of the political spectrum of news organizations.

Now I realize that the sight of a high government official accepting responsibility for something that happened on her watch, clearly accepting and admitting that it was an error, and apologizing for it rather than staunchly defending that it's right because the Administration said it's right would be unfamiliar to some, but that's what happened, and Bill, respectfully, you have your facts distorted and just plain wrong.

A report last week said that only 21% of Americans identify themselves as Republicans – maybe an all-time low point for the Grand Old Party. I think one reason for this is that it must be embarrassing for anyone with any ethics or integrity to be associated with a party that, for the eight years of the previous administration, lied their (our) way into a bloody war, sloughed off responsibility for the disaster of rebuilding after Katrina, and all the rest.

What's amazing is that that remaining 21% keeps doing it. Last week Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) had the colossal effrontery to refer in open session to the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming as "a hoax, and did that with Shepard's mother in the gallery! And this is only the latest in a series of lies, rumors, and false reports from the likes of Cheney, Rove, Palin, and the rest of the ever-shrinking right-wing Republican crew.

So Bill, thanks for asking. I know, because you've written in so often, that you are a regular reader – and I appreciate your designation of me as the NLTB's "ace columnist," although I think you may have made a spelling error. In any case, with Jim and Andy I'm at best one of three aces. As to expressing my political views and putting down previous presidents, well, the first is actually my constitutional right, and as to the second, it's really only one previous president – I'm pretty OK with many of the other 42. Anyhow, thanks for your interest.