Friday, January 28, 2011

Bonanza Column 221 – Let’s Put the Civility Back

I'll start with a clean-up. In my column two weeks ago on the Tucson shootings I had a number of my facts wrong and several readers pointed this out including in a letter to the editor last week. The weapon used was not an automatic, it was a standard hand gun, and the ammunition was not special ammo – it was a normal load. The only thing unusual about the weapon was that it had a clip that held 30 rounds rather than 8 or 9. In my reaction to the shooting I relied on early reports which are hardly ever accurate and I did not further check the facts. I appreciate the readers pointing this out, and apologize – as I've said, I try to keep as close to the facts in these columns as I can, and in this case fell far short.

What did bother me about some of the responses was that the writers seemed to think that the incorrect facts somehow negated or nullified my argument. A 30-round clip is only necessary for self-defense if you are holding off numbers of attackers – it's as aberrant in my opinion as an automatic weapon or special loads. Loughner in Tucson was able to do far more damage with 30 rounds than if he had to stop after 8 or 9 and reload, and a 9-year old girl is dead.

I have no problem with advocacy for any position. The beauty of a free society is that anyone is free to advocate for any cause no matter how outlandish. In the heat of argument it's likely that things will be taken as fact that turn out not to be so – in that case, I believe it is incumbent on the advocate to clear up the discrepancy and to say how the actual facts affect the validity of his or her argument. In this case I think they don't, but I've given you the facts and you can judge for yourself.

I do have a problem when facts are willfully distorted with no accountability on the speaker's part – when Michelle Bachman says that the Founding Fathers abolished slavery and it's not in the Constitution or when Sarah Palin says that the USSR's space program led to the demise of their economic system decades later, that's an attempt to rewrite history and it's both disingenuous and wrong.

I have an even bigger problem when NO facts are presented and demeaning, insulting rhetoric is used to advocate a position. I think most Americans have issues with the government of China and its economic and social policies. Nevertheless, China is a major actor on the world stage. They have one fourth of the world's population, a fast-growing economy, and they hold a great deal of America's debt. For these reasons it makes sense to try to keep the relationship and the lines of communication between our two countries open. That noted liberal Richard Nixon knew that and opened the relationship during his administration and through thick and thin US Presidents since Nixon have done the same. It was in that spirit that President Obama hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao as he would any visiting head of state.

Rush Limbaugh who, whatever you think of him, has a large listening audience, derided the meeting and Hu Jintao personally and then launched into a long string of fake Chinese. Making fun of how another language sounds and using that to imply that the speaker is spouting gibberish is about as boorish and racist as it gets, and a California State Senator of Chinese descent, Leland Yee, demanded an apology. Limbaugh was unrepentant and truculent in his response and within hours Senator Yee's office began receiving death threats.

Responsible advocacy is the right, some would say the duty, of citizens of a free country. Responsible advocacy includes having one's facts straight, cleaning it up when one gets facts wrong, and respecting the dignity and humanity of others, even those with whom we disagree strongly. Ad hominem attacks, racial slurs, demeaning humor have no place in civilized discourse. We can manage the national polity without the input of Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk, and the American public is smarter than Bachman and Palin seem to think. It's time to put civility back into the debate; if the merits of your argument aren't sufficient to sway your listeners it demeans you, your argument, and your cause to resort to willful distortion, demeaning attacks, and appeals to racism.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bonanza Column 220 – No One Hears

It's been exactly 50 years since John F. Kennedy gave his first State of the Union address, the speech in which he announced an American commitment to putting a man on the moon and bringing him back safely by the end of the decade of the '60's. It was not an announcement anyone expected – the Soviet Union had recently launched Sputnik, shocking America out of a complacent haze where no one questioned that we were the world leader in science and technology.

It was also not a commitment that anyone thought was reasonable or prudent. There was no real American technology that could be predicted to get us to the moon. There is a story (probably apocryphal, but instructive nonetheless) that Kennedy told that when he got back to his office after the speech there was a line of scientists outside his door. The first one to come in said "it can't be done;" the President asked him why not and was told "we don't have the fuel." So, JFK said, he put that guy in charge of finding the right fuel. The second scientist in said "we don't have the right metals," so he was put in charge of the metals and so on down the line until the last scientist in line who just said "it can't be done."
"So," said Kennedy, "I put him in charge of the whole thing."

That spirit of possibility that sees objections and obstacles as simply means to revealing what is needed to get the job done seems to have waned in the past 50 years. In the '60's it was a direct outgrowth of the technological creativity it took to win World War II. In the early 1940s a group of brilliant physicists and other scientists were brought together to form the Manhattan Project, the object of which was to design a nuclear weapon. Almost all of the scientists had already been working for several years on the problem, with very little progress. In 1941 they were united under the co-direction of General Leslie Groves and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, and placed under extreme time pressure lest Germany develop the weapon first. These were, for the most part, senior scientists of considerable reputation and in some cases with egos to match. To further complicate matters they were not all in the same place; there were 14 project sites. Groves and Oppenheimer had the task of coordinating this widespread and disparate group, and how they did this remains a case study in managing a diverse group to accomplish an impossible task..

A parallel project was underway at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany under Werner Heisenberg. The German project had personnel who were arguably as brilliant as those in the Manhattan Project, a leader in Heisenberg who was at least Oppenheimer's equal, and the same time pressure, and it took place largely under one roof, yet the Manhattan Project succeeded and the German effort did not. The reason lies in large part in a fundamental difference in how the projects were managed. The German project was run along classical scientific lines—scientists worked alone or in small groups, shared their work in colloquia, and went back to work in their separate labs. In the American project free exchange of information, thinking, and speaking across disciplinary boundaries, brainstorming, and creativity were encouraged, particularly by Oppenheimer who sponsored an environment where ideas could come together and interact. Failure was not only tolerated but encouraged as creative approaches were tried. Learning and rate of adjustment were key values as those failures were turned into discoveries and accelerated execution.

This spirit of free collaboration was carried forward into the Moon project that began under Kennedy and culminated in 1967 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface. It was only possible because all those involved – civilians, military, Congressional committees, universities – did more than put aside their differences – they used their differences as fuel for creativity, innovation, and high performance.

Today, it seems, it's the differences that matter, not any common values, goals, or objectives we can find. It's not "we're both out for the same goals in service of the same purposes, so let's see how we can find common ground on methods," it's "my methods are the only ones that will work – if we don't do it MY way, even if we reach the objectives, I won't support it. As W.H. Auden said, "each ear is listening to its own hearing, so no one hears.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bonanza Column 219 – A Little Girl, a Federal Judge, and a Congresswoman

Let's start with full disclosure: I own guns, a rifle, several shotguns, and a hand gun. I am not anti-gun, and I am pro-gun control. By that I mean that I favor restricting gun ownership to weapons and ammunition that can legitimately be used for sport, hunting, or self-defense. I see no reason why anyone would need an automatic weapon or ammunition that can punch a fist-sized hole in an armored glass window.

That's what the Tucson shooter was using – what I would consider a legitimate weapon to have (a Glock 9mm) and ammunition way beyond anything anyone would need for self-protection. I try not to picture the effect of that ammunition on a 9-year old girl or a Congresswoman's head. I try not to, but I'm not succeeding.

I know, I know – he could have done damage with a .22 loaded with target rounds, but not as much damage and not as easily. That's not the point. By caving in consistently to the NRA's loony obsession with having absolutely no restrictions on ownership of guns and ammo, Congress has sent a message that anything goes. Not that murder is OK per se, but that even if you're certifiably nuts, you can freely own enough firepower to do as much damage as your twisted mind desires. That's just wrong.

In case you think that I'm exaggerating the influence of the NRA on our weak-kneed legislators, there has not been a full-time Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and (wait for it) Firearms since George W. Bush was in office. The NRA blocked his attempt at appointing one and has successfully kept the Bureau disempowered ever since. Nobody wants the job because of the unrelenting opposition they will experience from the NRA. Democrat, Republican, it doesn't matter – for the NRA, unrestricted freedom to own weapons of mass destruction (OK, not mass – just 9-year old girl and Federal Judge destruction) supersedes politics, party and, apparently, any rationality at all. Why?

Don't cite the sacred (to the NRA) Second Amendment to me – the Second Amendment is not about gun ownership. It says ""A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." I don't know about you, but I was taught in school that taking a part of a sentence out of the context of the sentence as a whole was dirty pool. The sentence in question says that the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" is in the context of the necessity of "a well regulated militia," not that the right to keep and bear arms is sacred, whatever the NRA says.

Now as I said, I'm not quite that strict a constructionist – I believe that people should be allowed to keep and bear arms for reasonable purposes like hunting and protection of their home and family. I believe that the armed forces, including the National Guard (read "militia") should keep and bear whatever arms are deemed necessary for protecting the "security of a free state" including automatic weapons, hand grenades, and flame throwers, but let's not mix up the two. I say again: there is no reason other than a confusion between (as they say in the army) "my rifle and my gun" to keep an AK-47 or armor-piercing ammunition at home. My .38 police special with standard rounds will dispatch any human threat just fine, and my rifle and shotguns are sufficient to deal with any animal threats, rare as they are. If not, the weapon I should be using is 911, not .38 or 30.06.

Get it: A little girl is dead. Her only mistake was wanting to see a Congresswoman who might be a role model for her to enter a career of public service. A distinguished Federal Judge is dead – his only mistake was being in the wrong place at a horribly wrong time. An elected representative of the majority of the people in her district lies in the hospital with brain injuries the extent and effect of which are unknown as yet. Her only mistake was wanting to give her constituents an opportunity to talk with her face to face. And a crazy SOB will plead insanity, and maybe rightly so, but speaking of insanity, how does the NRA plead?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Bonanza Column 218 – The Real Controversy about IB

Taken at face value, the controversy over the International Baccalaureate Program (IB) in Incline schools makes no sense. A group of citizens, some with kids in the schools and some not but all of whom are concerned enough about our kids' education, took it upon themselves to research the merits of the program and work out an arrangement with the Washoe County School District to bring the program into Incline schools and fund the first three years of it. Based on that pledge, the WCSD added teachers and programs in our schools. IBIV, the group spearheading the initiative promised $150,000 to the District by the end of 2010. For a variety of reasons, they raised only $85,000 of this by the deadline, and remain committed to raising the full amount and reimbursing the District. WCSD, for its part, having hired the teachers etc., remains committed to the program and presumably will accept IBIV's IOU for the balance.

Another group of residents is vehemently opposed to IB. The reasons for their opposition don't seem to have much of a basis in the facts – AP will continue to exist alongside IB, some teachers favor IB, some don't, and the program has a clearly positive academic track record and support. This group has been vocal in its view that the WCSD is not listening to the people of the community, but has presented no clear evidence that they represent more than a small minority opinion – the support garnered by IBIV is at the very least a counterweight to the opposition, and seems to represent a larger group, though numbers are hard to come by in both cases. At any rate, the people backing IB have been willing to put up a significant amount of money in the face of a hard economy, and there is no reason to think they won't collect more. The anti-IB group keeps accusing IBIV and the District of "polarizing the community," but it seems to me that polarization takes a minimum of two views, so that responsibility has to fall as much on them as on IBIV.

Ultimately, it's the WCSD's and the Superintendent's responsibility to decide educational policy for our schools. It's appropriate and just good sense for them to take into account various views in the community, but in the end it's the professionals who should make the decisions. I want my doctor to listen to me, answer my questions, and take my thoughts and feelings into account, but in the end, I count on his medical expertise to make the final call. That's the deal with professionals – we pay them to make judgment calls based on their expertise, and they really do know more than we do – not because we're stupid or ignorant, just because they have made a career of studying their field at a higher level than we have. Presumably when the facilities experts tell the Superintendent that the plumbing in a given school needs to be replaced, he doesn't convene a committee of educators to decide if that's so – he listens to the professionals.

All the above is based on taking the controversy at face value. But when people put their personal opinion ahead of the facts and ahead of the opinions of experts, what they are saying is rarely what they are really concerned about. In a "don't confuse me with the facts, my mind's made up" argument, there is always something that is being concealed. In this case a little research on the "say no to IB" position makes it clear that their objections are not based on "what's good for the kids" but on a political agenda. Worse yet, that political agenda is as spurious as can be imagined – it's based on some nebulous fear of the UN, world government, communists, and a non-existent connection between IB and all this. They will tell you that IB is a UNESCO non-governmental organization (NGO) and that that proves it's all a plot, but they will ignore the fact that there are some 900 NGO's including the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, Rotary International, and other such organizations.

IB has shown its value in many schools in the US, none of which, as far as I know, have been taken over by the UN or by International Communism (is there still international communism?). IBIV will raise the funds or they won't, and the WCSD will act as best it can in the interests of our children's education, as they have been trained to do and as they have dedicated their lives to doing. It's time for the bickering to end.