Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bonanza Column 265 - The Calendar

I’m writing this as we approach January 1 and as it is every year, much is being made of the “change” from one year to the next, as if it means something. Like most folks, I don’t mind an excuse for a party, but it’s probably worth remembering that calendars aren’t real.
Early on in human history, people observed that nature follows cycles – among the most obvious of these cycles is the alternation of daylight and darkness, and since all animals sleep and human being sleep at night, it was natural to treat each renewal of daylight as a “new day.” Another easily observed cycle was the apparent waxing and waning of the moon, which seemed to begin about every 28 days, so along with days people spoke in terms of months (moons). Finally, in the mostly temperate climates where humans lived, there was the cycle of the seasons.
These cycles gave us days, months, and years as naturally occurring phenomena. Then the human mind began to intervene. Cycles have no real beginning or end – like circles they just keep going round and round, but most things in human life have beginnings, middles, and ends, and so it was perhaps natural to see the cycle of the seasons as one of birth (Spring), growth (Summer), aging (Fall) and death (Winter). But if that is the case, why not begin the year in April, with the onset of Spring? Well, here another human feature comes in – call it religion or superstition depending on your bent. Along with the weather changes of the seasonal cycle, in most latitudes the cycles of daylight and darkness varied as well, and the “dying” part of the seasonal cycle, was also the time of year with the least daylight. Early religions incorporated festivals involving lights to fend off the darkness, and when the days began to gradually lengthen after the Winter Solstice, the darkness receded and they felt the world was reborn, so the custom of demarcating one year from the next in mid-winter was born.
Note that all of this calendaring is the result of human interpretations of natural phenomena. Now, thousands of years later we treat these interpretations as if they were facts. Religions set their “new year” according to their own calendar. The hijri, the Islamic New Year will occur anywhere from September to December during the second decade of the 21st Century (another invention – Centuries), rosh hashanah, the Jewish New Year is generally in September or October, tet, the Asian New Year occurs in a variation tied to the Winter Solstice, and the standard or secular New Year is, of course, January 1st. In all cases, though, the holiday supposedly marks a significant change – different years have different astrological and astronomical influences, as do different cycles, etc., and otherwise rational people vary somewhere between full credence and sheepish uneasiness in their relationship to the changes. Look at the turn of the millennium a dozen years ago or the supposed end of the Mayan calendar last week for illustrations of this phenomenon.
So let’s have a party, wish each other a happy “new year,” and remember to write 2013 on our checks (does anyone write checks any more?), but let’s not take it too seriously. Things will change, and we’ve set certain things (e.g. the government, budgets, credit card expirations) up to change in concert with changing over to a new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar or whatever, but remember the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same thing). The world in 2013 will consist largely of the effects of what happened in 2012, 2011, etc., and we would do well to keep working at what we began in 2012 and not expect any magic to occur when we take down one calendar and put up another.
Happy 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bonanza Column 264 - The Need for a New National Dialogue

It ought to be too obvious to bear mentioning that the problem of gun violence in the United States does not admit of easy answers, but the spate of reactions in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown indicates that a significant number of people with access to public platforms don’t seem to understand that simple fact.
I understand the appeal of simplicity. The problem is that in order to come up with a simple solution, you have to over-simplify the problem. It’s easy to say “ban all guns,” but as we’ve learned from Prohibition and the “war on drugs,” banning anything only creates an underground economy in the banned substance, and underground economies are much harder to regulate and control than open trade. Conversely, the “let’s arm everybody” argument is equally unrealistic – to have all kinds of untrained and unscreened people running around with deadly weapons hardly seems likely to improve the situation.
The spokesman for the NRA says we should have armed guards in every school, ignoring both the financial costs and the psychological costs of our children having to go to school behind armed guards. It also ignores the fact that in the shootings at Fort Hood in 2009, in the most populous U.S. military installation in the world, a single gunman killed 13 people and wounded 29 others. Despite being surrounded by armed, trained military personnel, some of whom engaged him, the killer fired 214 rounds before being stopped. There were also armed guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech, to no good effect.
Here are some things we can say: first of all, automatic and semi-automatic weapons have only one function, which is to shoot as many rounds as possible in the shortest possible times. Fully automatic weapons have been illegal since Prohibition, and the most recent ban that was allowed to expire, was full of holes including, incredibly, “grandfathering in” weapons manufactured and sold before the ban and already in people’s possession, i.e., potentially on the market. These are not hunting weapons or self-defense weapons, they are designed for and work well in combat situations against multiple adversaries.
Secondly, weapons for hunting or self-defense do not need ammunition clips that hold 30 rounds or more. Hunting, say deer or elk, you’re going to get one shot, maybe two at a time before the animal is either down or gone. If I’m defending my home against intruders, there are unlikely to be more than a couple of them, and they are likely to take off after the first shot or two.
Third, analogies advanced on both sides of the argument are flawed – yes there are countries where a large part of the population own and even carry guns, and those countries have lower rates of gun violence than the US. And there are countries where almost no one owns guns and those countries have lower rates of gun violence than the US. Looking at it logically, one has to at least entertain the notion that gun ownership, whether free or restricted, has no correlation with gun violence. What does? I have to assume that the culture of those countries – how people approach violence in general and gun use in particular – has something to do with it.
Fourth, blaming easy scapegoats is unlikely to make anything useful happen. In the past ten days we’ve seen attempts to place blame on everything from the media to the NRA, to violence in movies, to the State of Connecticut’s position on same-sex marriage, to the absence of prayer in schools, you name it. All of that is blatant opportunism on the part of the speakers, cynically taking advantage of a tragedy to advance their pet agenda. Twenty children and six adults are dead – that is a fact; anything else is just opinion, and in most cases the “connection” between what is being blamed and the tragedy exists only in someone’s fevered imagination.
So what do we do? As with most complex problems there are some obvious steps to take – restore the ban on automatic weapons and beef it up – get them off the market and make the penalties for violating the ban draconian. In the longer run, though, let’s get into a serious national conversation about what facilitates a culture in which gun violence happens at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the world. Is the Second Amendment really central to what America is about? Given the Founders wrote that amendment when the most deadly weapon around was a flintlock, does it need to be modified? How is it that the NRA has a stranglehold on so many of our elected officials? What do we need to maintain, modify, or eliminate in our national dialogue to have people be safe in their own homes, schools, military bases, and streets? Until we address these questions, we’d best keep in mind the aphorism, “If we don’t change our direction, we’re liable to get where we’re headed.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bonanza Column 263 - A Possible Lesson from Newtown

In the wake of Friday’s tragic killing of 20 elementary school children and 8 adults in Connecticut, it’s almost impossible to write about anything else. Everything – the fiscal cliff, the war in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Gaza – pales in comparison.
At the same time, there is hardly anything worth saying. The 24-hour news cycle has shown the horror repeatedly as if somehow it is still news 24 and 48 hours later. There are the predictable calls for tighter gun controls and the equally predictable disgusting attempts by self-styled religious “authorities” to exploit the tragedy by asserting that it is God’s punishment for not enough prayer in schools and a host of other agenda-based causes.
Mostly what happens in this situation is a carnival of opining which does nothing other than give the opiners some air time. Somehow we have become a society in which the important distinction between opinion and facts has been lost, and opinions are routinely stated as if they were facts. Let’s look at some facts:
·        Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders (killings involving 4 or more victims) carried out with firearms across the country, in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.
·        Of the 142 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns.
·        Half of the cases involved school or workplace shootings (12 and 19, respectively); the other 31 cases took place in locations including shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings, and military bases.
Now you can make any interpretation of those facts you want to – everyone has the right to their opinion – but don’t confuse your interpretation with fact. If you say that the fact that three-quarters of the weapons used were obtained legally means that we should ban all guns, it’s your right to say that and to believe it. It’s not your right to argue it as a self-evident fact; it’s not a fact, it’s your opinion. Similarly for the idea of arming teachers or having greater security in schools.
Here’s an opinion that we keep hearing as if it were a fact: “the problem is that not enough people are armed; if there had been armed people in the theater in Colorado, they would have stopped the shooter before he could kill as many as he did.” Here’s a fact: in all the 62 mass murders cited above, not one armed person attempted to stop the shooter. It’s possible that there were no armed people at any of those shootings, but that seems statistically improbable, particularly in places like Arizona and Colorado that have very loose concealed carry laws.
Here’s a fact: A teacher, Victoria Soto hid her students in a closet. When the killer confronted her, she told him they were in the gym; he killed her, and her students remained safe. My opinion about that is that it was heroism of the highest order.
We are also seeing a flood of statistics regarding gun ownership, crime rates, murder rates, etc., in the US versus the rest of the world. These statistics are facts – in and of themselves they don’t mean anything until they are interpreted, and interpretations are not facts, so it isn’t legitimate to argue whose interpretation is right or wrong, better or worse.
This failure to make the distinction between facts and opinions is (in my opinion) a large part of what has us in the situation we are in now as a nation. Whether it’s economic strategy, environmental strategy, education, you name it, we are mired in divisiveness, and divisiveness is never fact-based – it’s always about whose opinion, whose interpretation of the facts is “right.” Here’s a news flash – no opinion is right, no opinion is wrong. The value of opinion and interpretation is that they create avenues for action – we rarely act based on the facts, we act based on how we interpret those facts. The most useful conversation is not who’s right, but which interpretation gives us the most opportunity for effective action.
This tragedy will be politicized – both sides of the gun control issue will argue that it proves their point. It does not. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King said “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” If we concern ourselves with that, we will be discussing opinions. Here’s a start – when you speak, notice when you speak your opinion as if it were a fact, and then correct yourself – say clearly that it’s your opinion, and open your mind to listen to and learn from other points of view. In that way we can honor the memory of Victoria Soto and all those children who were robbed of their future.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Bonanza Column 262 - Education Needs to Learn from Business

I'm well aware of my tendency as I grow older to look upon the past as a time when all was good and to worry about the present and despair of the future, and I do my best to control it. I try to remember that the idyllic small-town youth I remember was obtained only by a tacit agreement to ignore institutionalized poverty, racism, homophobia, gender bias, and all the rest of the ignored factors that made the 1950's a fool's paradise for the white, male-dominated, heterosexual middle and upper classes. 
Notwithstanding those very real flaws, the bitter fruits of which we are harvesting to this day and likely will continue to harvest for years to come, there were some things we did right. Even in the backwater upstate New York town where I grew up, everyone got a solid educational grounding for adult life. To be sure, there were two tracks, one for those destined for college and the other for those whose education would end at High School, but care was taken that both groups got an education that did more than merely pander to their transitory teen-age tastes or prepare them only to pass tests, and too much of today's education seems to be about those two dubious goals. In this the educational establishment is showing itself to be decades behind the business world.
In the latter stages of the manufacturing economy, roughly from 1850 to 1950, American business measured its success by the numbers - units produced, revenue in, profits out, etc. Peter Drucker, a leading management thinker for much of the 20th Century was famous for the dictum that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it," and American industry took this to heart. Measurement and its cousin statistics became the supreme power worshipped at the altar of American business.
With the transition to a new age of business - call it the Information Economy or the Interaction Economy, or the Experience Economy - there probably won't be an "official" name until after the next transition - the primacy of "the numbers" began to be challenged. Not that numbers and measurement won't always have a place, but the importance of Drucker's other maxim, "you don't measure what you get, you get what you measure" began to become clear. If you measure salespeople's activity (e.g. number of sales calls) you will get a lot of activity; if you measure their productivity (e.g. number of sales closed), you will get a lot of productivity, and so qualitative factors, considered "soft and fluffy" in the Manufacturing Economy came into increasing prominence.
Our education system seems to be going the other way. Under the banner of "performance-based" education, what is being emphasized is test scores, and just as when you measure salespeople's activity you get more sales calls but not necessarily more sales closed, when you measure test scores you get higher test scores but not necessarily more education. In other words we are in danger of turning out skilled test-takers rather than educated people.
One unintended consequence of the emphasis on test scores is a dumbing-down of the education system. Makes sense doesn't it? If you want higher test scores, teach easier material! So increasingly we find the "harder" subjects being dropped or made optional. For example, in more and more school districts, the classics are no longer required or in some cases even taught. The classics of world literature, music, philosophy, as well as the forms of mathematics that taught us to think - algebra, geometry, trigonometry, are going by the wayside in favor of whatever is currently trendy in too many schools.
The culprits in this unfortunate trend are not the teachers. Ive yet to meet a teacher who is happy with "teaching to the test." Rather it is the educational administration, beginning with the Federal Government that seem to be looking for a simple way to measure and have neglected to pay attention to Drucker's second principle. If you measure test scores, you will raise a generation of good test-takers, not educated citizens. Secretary Duncan should take a leaf from Business's book, see what is at the source of real learning, and measure that, messy as it may be.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Bonanza Column 261 - Climate Change - the Long and Short of It

In the long run, the question of how much human activities are contributing to climate change is an important one. While a substantial majority of climate scientists agree that overuse of fossil fuels and other factors do contribute significantly, the possibility remains, however slim or substantial you might judge it to be, that over geological spans of time, the Earth’s climate fluctuates naturally on a spectrum between ice ages and global warming. As I’ve said before, this is a question that should be resolved on the basis of science, not opinion, notwithstanding the fact that we seem to be living in a time when many vocal non-scientists seem to think that science and opinion/religious interpretation deserve equal consideration. (As the Dalai Lama said, “someone whose faith is not grounded in reason is like a stream of water that can be led anywhere”)
In the shorter term, we have to deal with the reality that, whatever the causes, we are in a period of climate change in the warming direction. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 50% of Americans live within 50 miles of a coast and that number has been increasing substantially over the past 30 years. Add to that the population who live in non-coastal flood plains, e.g., near rivers and major streams, and you have a significant portion of the population whose lives and livelihoods are affected by rising sea levels and by rain in areas and at times when not long ago there would have been snow. Areas around Lake Tahoe in this latter category include Truckee, and in the greater region, we’ve just seen Reno and Sparks gearing up for potential major damage. In 1997, we saw Reno flooded significantly when the Truckee River overflowed its banks.
While the nature and necessity of societal response to long-term climate change may be considered to be debatable (and while I don’t think it is, I’m aware that others disagree), the need to respond to the short-term issues is not. We’ve seen what rising sea levels combined with a weather emergency can do in coastal communities from New Orleans to New York, and having seen that further loss of life and property without significant attempts to defend against them is politically, societally, and humanly unacceptable.
Make no mistake, there is a limit to what we can do. Earthquakes, tornados, superstorms, tsunamis and other cataclysmic weather events will continue to occur and there will be damage and loss of life. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility as citizens and the government’s responsibility as well to do what can be done to minimize these effects. In Hawai’i, for example, the State and local goverments have detailed plans to do this – tsunami warning sirens, organized evacuations to higher ground, and significant efforts to educate citizens and visitors so that when execution of these plans is needed, things go generally smoothly and effectively.
This distinction between the long-term and short-term issues of climate change is important. When they are lumped together, those whose economic interests and/or religious convictions are threatened by the consideration of human contribution to the long-term effects rally against efforts to do something about protecting against the short-term effects, whatever their causes, and lives and property are lost.
The regular reader of this column knows that, by training and disposition, I am a rationalist, and an empiricist, which is to say I am biased toward a scientific approach and I trust the scientific interpretation of data to create theories that can be tested and revised as new findings arise, or that can be promoted from the status of theory to that of scientific law, which is itself subject to revision. Those who do not wish to deal with science claim this constant revision invalidates science and prefer to cling to rigid, if unsubstantiated, belief. That is their right, but it leads to a kind of fatalism that I abjure, and as the Dalai Lama said, it creates the danger of being led around by the nose. Either way, if we are not to simply be victims of the vagaries of weather and climate change, we need to be vigorous in our approach to both the possibilities of human contribution to climate change and to the need to protect ourselves from its effects, regardless of the causes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bonanza Column 260 - Collaboration and Compromise

Occasionally, to make a point, a pundit or Internet troll will pompously assert that the United States “is a republic, not a democracy.” The occasion for this sophistry is usually when something that the majority of people favor goes against what the writer wants. Well, the statement is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go quite far enough – a democracy, you’ll recall, is based on majority rule, period, and as such is prey to what John Adams called “the tyranny of the majority,” wherein the needs/rights/concerns of the minority are ignored or trampled.
A republic, on the other hand, is a form of government that is established by a charter that lays out the broad outlines of governance and that is administered by representatives of those who are being governed, with a head of state whose powers are derived from the charter and whose office is not hereditary.
The United States was the first country to institute a hybrid of these two, called a “democratic republic.” In this form, most fully elaborated by Madison in Federalist Paper number 10, the source of the power of the government is the citizenry and is exercised through representatives who are accountable to the citizens by means of frequent re-election (or not) and such safeguards as initiative, referendum, and recall. The Constitution, the charter of this democratic republic has, over the years, become increasingly sensitive to the danger of the tyranny of the majority, and so the rights of minorities – minority voting blocs, minority races, genders, sexual preferences, religions, etc., have come under greater and greater protection.
In government over the past four years the notion of “majority” has been stretched to its thinnest. The Executive Branch has been held by the Democrats, with the Legislative Branch split. Even in the Judiciary, the Supreme Court has often split 5-4 on important issues. The popular vote in the presidential election was won by about 2.2 million votes out of a total of approximately 125 million cast, or 3.3%. In 2004 George W Bush won by 2.4% and claimed a mandate of “political capital,” so some have claimed an even “greater” mandate for President Obama, but as I said in this column a couple of weeks ago, “mandate” is in the eye of the beholder.
What does seem clear is that governing in this climate must be based on collaboration and compromise. Either party has the power to stop the wheels of government by itself, but neither has the ability to govern alone. The country cannot afford the gridlock we have seen for the past four years – there are important matters that must be dealt with – health care, the deficit, climate change, jobs. The litany is as familiar as it is daunting, but without action things can only get worse, and action is only possible if both sides are willing to work together.
President Obama has shown a certain willingness to compromise. On the other hand he was elected to lead and govern and his platform was clear, so in all integrity and good conscience there are places where he will and must stand. He has already said as much on the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, and it seems reasonable to expect similar stands on health care and some other areas. Members of the GOP have shown encouraging signs of flexibility –repudiation of the “Grover Norquist pledge” has begun and will hopefully grow. John McCain’s rants notwithstanding, it seems reasonable to hope that if the President nominates Susan Rice for Secretary of State in his second term, that nomination will be considered on its merits and not on the specious grounds of a statement made during the Benghazi tragedy. Whatever their public rhetoric, all but the most rigidly doctrinaire right-wingers in the Republican Party must recognize that the most extreme elements of their platform were rejected in the election.
I’m not suggesting that this means the GOP should just roll over or that the Democrats should try to roll over them – on the contrary, if we are to be true to what the Founders intended in establishing the world’s first democratic republic, both sides should recognize that there is support for both views and that only compromise and collaboration will allow for effective action against the very real problems we are facing. Woody Allen said, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” In this case the correct choice is neither, but a new path forged by reason and the triumph of concern for the general welfare over narrow partisan interests.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bonanza Column 259 - The Attitude of Gratitude

As Thanksgiving, 2012 approaches we in America find ourselves in an interesting situation. While the result of the recent election was clear, the campaign reflected a nation that is arguably more divided than it has been at any time since the Civil War era. We are engaged in conflicts that are being fought by 1% of Americans and all but ignored by the other 99%, and the Middle East looks on the verge of escalating into a war from which there may be no turning back.
So it might seem odd to consider the question of gratitude, or it might be argued that there is no better time, no greater need than now.
We are accustomed to thinking about gratitude or giving thanks as transactional – we are grateful FOR something or some things, we are thankful FOR specifics. But gratitude is more like a state of mind. The word “gratitude’ comes from the same root as “grace,” and one definition of grace is “the unmerited (or unearned) love of God for humankind.” If we consider gratitude in relation to this derivation, then “transactional gratitude” makes it too small. It puts us in the position of being grateful for the “good” things in our lives and less grateful or not grateful at all for the “bad” things. But who has not had the experience of something that appeared to be a negative turning out to be a blessing in disguise?
I had the experience not long ago of seeing an off-Broadway play called “Falling,” about a family with a severely autistic grown child. The play was extremely well written and acted, and pulled no punches about the challenges of living with this situation, while at the same time portraying how for all the difficulties, the parents, sister, and grandmother of the boy grew in compassion, love, and understanding from the experience. Probably none of us would have an ill or disabled family member if we had a choice, but all of us can relate to the situation of having that situation occur, and finding the blessings inherent in learning to live with and continue to love the person.
There is an aphorism dating from the 17th Century that says, in German, “Denken ist Danken” – to think is to thank. The 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger expanded on this idea to say that genuine thinking, by which he meant contemplating the meaning of being human, inherently leads to gratitude. The 13th Century theologian Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” The Dalai Lama suggests that even encounters with those who irritate or annoy us are opportunities for gratitude: “…there are many, many people in the world, but relatively few with whom we interact, and even fewer who cause us problems. So, when you come across such a chance for practicing patience and tolerance, you should treat it with gratitude. It is rare.”
So let’s try, on this one day of the year that is dedicated to gratitude, to put our differences aside and to adopt, for 24 hours at least, an attitude of gratitude. To be thankful not just for our well-being and comfort but also for the opportunities life gives us to practice patience and tolerance, to aid the needy, to comfort the afflicted. Every religious teacher and every religion’s teaching tell us that the meaning of life is not material things and comforts, but to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to comfort those in pain, and to rejoice in others’ joys. This week, this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember that and practice the gratitude that is there in a kind word, a thoughtful gesture, and in reaching out, even to those we don’t like or agree with.
Have a happy Thanksgiving and a wonderful holiday season.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bonanza Column 258: Mandate or No, the Voters Have Spoken

As you would expect last week’s election results have led to an enormous amount of opining from both sides on what it all means. There is debate on whether a margin of 2.5% in the popular vote constitutes a mandate or not, and in my view you can argue either way – “mandate” is not a fact, the truth of which can be argued and proven, but an interpretation of the data and no interpretation is ever right or provable.
So let’s let the facts speak for themselves:
·        As of Noon on Friday, with nearly all votes in, Obama led Romney in the popular vote by a count of 61,173,739 or 50.5% to 58,167,260 or 48.0%.
·        Obama won the electoral vote by a greater margin than Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, or Bush.
·        Obama is the fourth president to win two terms by 50% or more, joining Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan.
·        The Democrats gained two seats in the (already Democrat-controlled) Senate, and while they did not gain a majority in the House, narrowed the margin of difference.
·        Far-right Republicans lost races they were expected to win (e.g.,Mourdock, Akins, McMahon) lost or won by much closer margins than expected (Bachman, Heller).
·        Tax reforms, particularly increasing the tax share of the wealthy was an explicit platform difference between the two parties, and the voters elected the guy who favored that increase.
·        Marriage rights, a hot-button issues for the right wing, was approved in four states by margins of 3 to 6%.
I’m not going to argue whether these results constitute a mandate for President Obama and the Democrats or not. I am suggesting that they, along with a great deal of post-election polling, reflect a trend among centrist and undecided voters away from the Tea Party/Evangelical Right’s positions and a growing disgust with the obstructionism by the Republicans in Congress that was fueled by their pandering to the extreme Right. The results for Mourdock, Akins, and McMahon in particular, along with the defeat of Scott Brown by Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and George Allen by Tim Kaine in Virginia should cause Mssrs. McConnell and Boehner to step back and reevaluate their tactics. McConnell proclaimed four years ago that the main task before the GOP was to make sure Obama was a one-term president – the main task – not the economy, not the endless wars, not poverty or health care. And they failed decisively at that task. Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, so we could see the change of tactics (or not) as a test of the GOP’s sanity.
A decisive majority of the voters have shown how they felt about all the issues the GOP bet their campaign on – tax reform, and Obamacare in particular. Post-election polling indicates that a vast majority of the electorate were disgusted by the campaign – its length, and particularly its mendacity. There was lying on both sides, but fact checkers across the spectrum agree that the dishonesty on the Romney/Ryan side was greater than on the Obama/Biden side by a large multiple. Personally, as I’ve said in this space, I have no use for lying on either side, and that includes lies of omission and lies by telling half-truths, and the American people seem to be showing that they feel the same.
It’s time now for both parties to get back to the business of governing. Liberal/Progressive as I am, I like the two-party system. It should serve to keep all parties honest and to ensure that the best aspects of both the liberal and conservative views are incorporated into policy. I like the parliamentary system of multiple parties better for the same reason, but third parties have never gained much traction here and when it operates effectively the two-party system should accomplish the same thing. It can’t, however, when either party decides that its survival and reelection is more important than what it was elected for and is willing to effectively stop the process of governing for four years in order to unseat a duly elected President.
Boehner has expressed some willingness to collaborate; McConnell still sounds intransigent. The future of the country may very well depend on their willingness to lead their party rather in cooperating to govern rather than maintaining their “my way or the highway” approach. Let’s hope that underneath the bombast, the results of the election are speaking to them and their colleagues and that the next four years are more productive than the last.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Bonanza Column 257: Climate Change is not an Opinion

For at least 400 years, “science” has been defined as knowledge gained through study or learning acquired through the scientific method. Initially, this definition made scientific knowledge the property of a very small number of people who had access to universities and libraries or who could establish private laboratories. With the invention of the printing press and increasing literacy and available public education, scientific knowledge became more and more accessible, but adherence to the scientific method remained a constant.
The scientific method is based on the use of measurable data obtained through observation or experimentation. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the scientific method is: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses." The chief characteristic that distinguishes the scientific method from other methods of acquiring knowledge is that scientists seek to let reality speak for itself, supporting a theory when a theory's predictions are confirmed and challenging a theory when its predictions prove false.
In other words, no piece of scientific knowledge is ever considered the last word on the subject, no matter how many times it has been confirmed, though certain highly consistent bits of information are considered so reliable that they are termed “laws.” The next level of certainty is theory, and then hypothesis.
Sometime in the past 25 or so years, however, scientific knowledge has become conflated with political and religious agendas, and these bedrock principles have been ignored – not by scientists, but by the general public. So, for example, the term “theory” in “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” instead of being properly taken as denoting a highly reliable set of principles to describe the development of living species over time has been termed “just a theory” (i.e., up for argument) and posed against the so-called “theory” of creationism which has no scientific basis at all.
Similarly an overwhelming majority of relevant scientists (only laws such as gravity have virtually 100% agreement among scientists) accept the theory that the Earth’s climate is changing in the direction of global warming. Notwithstanding that, climate change has become an issue that somehow divides politically along ideological lines, the way evolution divides along religious lines. Neither opinion is valid or relevant scientifically, and last week’s superstorm on the East Coast flooded, destroyed property, and killed without regard to the political positions of its victims.
Climate change is real, period, and it is reaching dangerous proportions. New York City demonstrates that urban design and engineering built to meet 19th Century challenges are inadequate to 21st Century challenges. After the blizzard of 1888 choked off the life of the City because all transport and power were above ground, New York built the subways and put power lines underground. Great idea if your biggest problem is heavy snow. With catastrophic rain, wind, and their consequences, not so much.
I’m talking here about the undeniable facts of climate change – scientists are not nearly as unanimous about what causes climate change, though a considerable majority of scientists hold the view that human activities contribute significantly to it, with the discussion tending much more to how much, not whether. Particularly since the development of quantum theory, scientists tend to be skeptical about the notion of “cause,” taking the view that any observed phenomenon is the result of a complex of causes. Still, if human activity is a contributor to climate change, and climate change is a threat to human life and welfare, it doesn’t seem logical to say that if it’s not the whole thing, we shouldn’t do anything about it and alleviate at least that contribution.
The debate over climate change (if you can call a bunch of lay people arguing against scientists as if their respective opinions deserved equal standing) has significantly impeded our ability to get out ahead of it, and New York is a case study in what happens when your response to natural disaster is reactive and insufficiently proactive. We didn’t learn from Katrina, and whether we can learn productively from Sandy remains to be seen – as long as we accept that it is valid to deal with climate change as a matter of opinion and a political issue, it seems unlikely we will learn.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bonanza Column 256 - Politics vs. Leadership

The Giants’ amazing performance in the World Series has got me thinking - baseball is a pretty interesting game on a lot of counts. For one thing, while playing the game requires a team of nine players, a baseball club is not a team in the same way that teams occur in other sports. Soccer, hockey, rugby, basketball are what I would call true team sports. While in all those games players have assigned roles, they require ongoing coordination among the players. In baseball coordination is required only on defense, and then usually between two or at most three players. The pitcher and catcher must coordinate ongoingly, but others only occasionally and some not at all. On offense, baseball reverts to individual contests - batter against pitcher, base runner against pitcher or catcher or the infielder barring his slide.
It may be the high requirement for individual performance that has us love baseball in the first place. The same Americans who disparage soccer for its supposed lack of action (read lack of scoring) find baseball balletic and interesting even though soccer is 90 minutes of non-stop action and a 3 hour baseball game may see 45 minutes of actual action, widely dispersed.
In soccer or any of what I'm calling "true team sports," the individual's performance is subsumed in the team's. There are stars, but even a Pele or Ronaldo can't force a win if the team is not playing. In baseball one player can make a difference, whether it's by pitching a no-hitter, by a superior batting performance, or by spectacular fielding, and I think that individuality is what makes baseball the quintessential American game.
We Americans love team effort and collective achievement, but we prize individual accomplishment more than perhaps any other people in the world. We want to believe that one person, on their own, can lead us to glory or save the day. Our political system, our business culture, and our social milieu all reflect this, and it is the demand we make, implicitly or explicitly on those who volunteer for leadership positions at every level from local government to our schools, to the Presidency, and everything in between.
At the same time we are rarely surprised when these idols we look to to lead us turn out to have feet of clay. When a Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong or Melky Cabrera are found to be grasping an unfair advantage through use of performance-enhancing drugs, when a businessman like Bernie Madoff turns out to be a crook, when an entertainer like Charlie Sheen comes a cropper, we are disappointed but not really shocked. With the hunger for individuality and leadership comes the secret resentment that we are not the individual who is leading, and a degree of schadenfreude when they topple.
I believe that it's this culture of individual achievement that is the key to America's success, not some mystical exceptionalism that we somehow carry with us, and this culture is also what limits us as a nation. We claim to place a high value, particularly in the business world, on teamwork, but it is the highly visible, big ego executive we venerate, despite a lot of compelling evidence that the most effective leaders, particularly CEOs, keep a low profile and make sure that the credit and glory goes to those who report to them.
I’m not saying there is no place for individual excellence – to the contrary, extraordinary individuals obviously contribute to high performance – I do say that when it becomes all about the star, performance suffers, and when we ignore the importance of true teamwork – a high level of coordination and collaboration that often requires subordination of ego and personal credit to the larger interests of the enterprise – we lose important access to what makes companies, organizations, and governments perform at a high level.
When I see political leaders who are criticized for being thoughtful, for listening to points of view other than their own and their party’s, for actually seeking to find common ground rather than to capitalize on differences, I’m not surprised that the culture of America looks like it does. Hopefully, we will change that on November 6th.
Be sure to vote – it’s important.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bonanza Column 255 - Enough of a House Divided

You’d think that with the election two weeks away there’d be a lot of fodder for a political column, but having written already about the IVGID and County races, I find myself seized by a curious lethargy where the other elections are concerned. It’s not that I don’t think they’re important. I believe that the outcome of the Presidential election will determine the future of this country for years to come. It’s the state races that have me fundamentally bored to tears. Dean Heller is unimpressive to me. He’s a party-line Republican for whom, as near as I can tell, an original idea would either frighten him to death or go unrecognized. Shelly Berkley, on the other hand has shown me equally little in terms of leadership, and while I don’t believe she’s as corrupt as the GOP is painting her, it’s hard to imagine there’s not something rotten in that particular Denmark, so I just can’t get excited. Mark Amodei versus who? All in all it seems like a bunch of sleepy races.
Jim Clark covered the State and County propositions well last week, and I agree with him. If the Legislature needs to meet more often, than make it a regular annual session, not some jury-rigged special session. I have no interest in our getting involved in the spitting contest between Reno and the County over emergency services, and the business of raising vehicle registration fees is too vague to be useful. I’m going to vote “no” on all three.
That leaves the Presidential race, and no one who’s read three words of just about any column I’ve written will be surprised to learn that I’m voting for Obama/Biden. I haven’t written too much about this race because it won’t be decided here – this one will be decided in two areas – the very few undecided or swing voters and that ill-conceived vehicle of elitism, the Electoral College. I don’t think there are very many undecided voters in our community, and while Nevada is considered a swing state in the Electoral vote, Clark County and the rest of Washoe County will carry far more weight in that swing than we will.
Still it’s worth considering the impact this election will likely have. The far right have hijacked the Republican Party away from its historic base and Governor Romney has shown that he will bend in the direction of whatever will get him elected. We can expect then that a Romney presidency, with the ultra-right Ryan as his Tea Party Jiminy Cricket will do its best to move the country far to the right of where it has ever been and where a majority of clear-thinking Americans want it to be. The impact of that on everyone but the very wealthy, the proverbial 1%, is likely to be devastating, with the extent of devastation increasing as you go down the socio-economic scale. Re-electing President Obama will affirm that this is still a country of more-or-less equal opportunity, a country that takes care of its poor and its veterans, and that recognizes that in the modern world certain things like decent affordable health care are a right, not a privilege.
But whichever side of the argument you’re on, one thing is sure - as a nation we are at loggerheads, and a slim or indecisive result won’t change that. Get out and vote – our best hope lies in a clear outcome; as Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Whoever is elected needs a mandate and a clear commitment to bring us together; we can’t give him the second but if we vote in record numbers, there’s a shot at the first.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bonanza Column 254 - The Race for County Commissioner

I finally had a week when I was not traveling coincide with a Bonanza/SNC Candidate Forum, so I was able to attend the Q & A session with the two candidates for Washoe County Commissioner District One. Unfortunately I was one of the few IV/CB residents who did. If you subtract the press and moderators as well as the IVGID candidates who were there, it was less than 20 people, a poor turnout indeed for information about an office that could have a major impact on our community in the months and years to come.
District One is huge – it stretches from the Washoe County line on Route 28 down the hill to Lakeridge, north through Caughlin Ranch to the North end of Reno. While much of the area of the District in the valley is within the City of Reno, the County Commissioner represents those areas in matters to do with the County as well as representing the unincorporated areas of the District, which includes us. There are over 56,000 registered voters in the District, with about 7,000 of those voters within the Incline/Crystal GID. In other words, our community accounts for about 1.8% of the registered voters in the District.
One of the main points made by those present at the Forum and in questions submitted to the Bonanza in advance was the need of our community to be represented. As you’d expect, both candidates hastened to reassure us that they would represent us and not neglect us in favor of the rest of the district. Both acknowledged that (a) this community is not like the rest of the District due to altitude, weather, the Lake, etc., (b) IV/CB residents rightly feel that we don’t get enough of our tax money put back into the community (i.e., we’re subsidizing the rest of the County), and (c) we have in a number of instances not been treated equitably by the County (cf. the tax revolt).
All that is well and good, and both candidates said the right things. The execution of those promises may be a different matter, though. Let’s say that our only real competition for the Commissioner’s attention is the unincorporated areas of the District – maybe then we get up as high as 10 or 20% of the population, maybe higher – I don’t know how to calculate it, but even if, of the 49,000 voters not within IVGID’s area, 30,000 live in Reno, we are still 9,000 out of 19,000, and I think that figure is likely to be generous. It’s going to be very difficult at times for whomever gets elected to stand for our interests when they conflict with those of voters down the hill.
This is important because the TRPA Regional Plan Update has greater local control of community character as one of its mainstays. For a community like South Lake Tahoe, this means the city government. For us, it means the County, and if history is any indicator, that’s not good news. Again, both candidates said the right things – they think we should have more local control, but it was clear that this was an area where neither had done extensive homework – both were very sketchy on the TRPA plan, and seemed more or less ignorant of what has already been tried with regard to gaining a greater degree of independence for the community. By way of refreshing everyone’s memory, early efforts to form a county were stopped in the Legislature, and there is little to suggest that today’s Legislature has much more of an appetite to form a new county than did the Legislature under Governor Miller. Analyses of the possibility of incorporating as a city don’t pencil out economically, and two years ago voters rejected becoming a town, which would have only expanded the purview of what is now IVGID, but still would have left us subject to the County as the final word on most things.
So to paraphrase Princess Leia “help us, Washoe County Commission, you’re our only hope.” Our last two Commissioners did a pretty good job of keeping up on our concerns and representing us – hopefully whichever candidate gets elected will also, but it will take close vigilance on our part to ensure that they do. Of the two, Andrew Diss seemed to me to have the greater grasp of important areas and less prone to predetermined solutions, so I’m going to give him my endorsement.
Most of all, vote. It’s important.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The BSA and DADT

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy in the military was repealed September 20, 2011. Prior to its enactment by President Clinton, service members and others had said that having openly gay troops would harm the military.
The Palm Center, which is part of the Williams Institute, an independent think tank conducting research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, at the University of California Los Angeles, School of Law, conducts research on sexual minorities in the military. They convened a panel of nine scholars, some of them professors at military academies, to conduct a study that began six months after the policy ended and concluded at about the one-year anniversary of the repeal. The panel interviewed opponents and advocates of the repeal as well as active-duty service members. They conducted on-site observations of four military units and reached out to 553 of the nearly 1,200 flag officers who signed a 2009 letter saying the repeal would undermine the military. Thirteen of these generals and admirals agreed to be interviewed.
From the study: “Our conclusion, based on all of the evidence available to us, is that DADT repeal has had no overall negative impact on military readiness or its component dimensions, including cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale. Although we identified a few downsides that followed from the policy change, we identified upsides as well, and in no case did negative consequences outweigh benefits. If anything, DADT repeal appears to have enhanced the military’s ability to pursue its mission.”
The research also showed that the repeal hadn’t been responsible for any new wave of violence or physical abuse among service members and appears to have enabled some gay troops to resolve disputes around harassment in ways that were not possible before.
Then we have the Boy Scouts of America, with its own version of DADT, a long-standing ban on “open or avowed homosexuals” both in the leadership and the membership of the organization. Many scouting families, in their own version of DADT went on with their participation in the hop that the antiquated rule, which was at times ignored, would be changed sooner rather than later.
But last week the BSA made it clear that the old policy was still in force. Ryan Andresen, a teenager who had completed all the requirements to become an Eagle Scout, was denied the highest Scout honor because he recently told his friends and family he is gay.
That local decision adhered to the BSA's ban on membership for gays, a policy officially recognized in 1991, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 and strongly reiterated by the organization in a July ruling. The rule, decided by a panel in Texas, was clear: No openly gay members.
By way of full disclosure, I was an Eagle Scout back in the day, and in fact was told at the time that I was, for a while, the youngest Eagle Scout in the US. I have always been pro-scouting and encouraged my children to participate. Scouting is good. This policy is not. As a private organization, the Supreme Court ruled the BSA could make its own rules, and I’m not questioning their right to do so – I’m saying that having the right doesn’t make it right. I was a Scout in an era when being gay wasn’t discussed, but there were always a few kids we knew were “that way,” and it didn’t affect anything – not in camp, not at the National Jamboree, and not in the troop, and it won’t affect anything now.
When Ryan’s mother Karen Andresen took up the fight this week for her son, support was immediately forthcoming, with more than 339,000 people (as of Sunday) listed on a petition urging Scout leaders to sign the teen's Eagle Scout paperwork. It would be an act of moral courage for them to do so. If repealing DADT didn’t harm the military, it won’t harm the Boy Scouts.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bonanza Column 252 - The IVGID Election

I was out of town on business for the IVGID candidates discussion last week, so what I know about it is what I read in the Bonanza’s printing of their responses to three selected questions and what I’ve heard from people who were there. From what I can tell there were no real surprises, with the candidates reiterating the positions they took in the primary race.
As the regular reader of this column is aware, I believe that local (community and county) issues require a different set of standards than state and national issues. My fundamental philosophy remains liberal/progressive, but on local matters the best interests of the community is the highest standard and as is well-known, Jim Clark and I often find ourselves on the same side of issues.
The problem with this standard is that what is in the best interests of the community is a wide-open question at this point given we have never come to a consensus or a decision on what we want the community to be. From the early Independent Incline efforts through Incline Vision and Pathways 2007, to the current Incline 2020 work, groups of well-intended residents have collected data to the best of their abilities about what people in the community want. All of these efforts have been interesting and none have been definitive. All have been subject to criticism based on the sample they used, and none so far have been followed up with any process that would have resulted in a charter for IV/CB going forward. Our subjection to Washoe County adds a further layer of complexity to the picture.
In the Bonanza’s report, one of the questions asked was “What is the view of recent financial losses at district venues, and should they should self-sustaining?” Frankly, I don’t know how any of the candidates could respond to this question. Any answer would have to be based on some coherent view of what the character of the community is to be going forward – for example, if we are to be a destination resort, then it might be reasonable to expect the venues to be profitable. On the other hand if the community is to exist primarily for the residents, then maybe breakeven makes sense. I don’t know how anyone can attempt to answer the question without having this as a basis. The TRPA Regional Plan Update makes this question, the most important thing this Board will have to deal with, along with hiring a new General Manager.
Notwithstanding all this, every two years we have to elect IVGID Trustees and the IVGID Board has to govern the District to the best of its ability, and the IVGID staff have to execute the policies the Board adopts. This year we have six candidates running for three seats. Three of these candidates make very similar cases for their election bid, the other three are running on platforms that, while similar to the first three in some respects, contain important differences. It behooves us as voters to look beyond simplified slogans and posturing and to investigate thoroughly before we vote. With only one incumbent seeking re-election, it’s possible that we’ll elect a new majority to the Board, so this year’s election is likely to be more impactful than usual.
For that reason, and for what it’s worth, I am only endorsing one candidate. The two Trustees who are not up for re-election are in their first term. Bea Epstein, the incumbent who is running has been on the Board, including stints as Chair, since 2004. While I doubt that anyone agrees with every decision she’s made and every vote she’s cast, few would disagree that she has worked hard, done her homework diligently, and been willing to listen to all views and think objectively about the issues. The Board needs continuity and, particularly with the prospect of a new GM, the institutional memory she provides is especially important.
Whatever your views one thing is sure: your view won’t be represented unless you vote. Early voting begins October 20 – be sure to vote.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bonanza Column 251 - The FBI and Free Speech

In the past couple of weeks’ columns we’ve been looking at the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression, particularly freedom of speech. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, has always seemed interesting to me. The Constitution, as originally adopted in 1789 addressed the structure and function of the Federal Government and its relationship to the States, but was thought by many to be deficient in its protection of individual rights. The Bill of Rights, introduced by James Madison immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, was aimed at rectifying that omission.
The primacy of freedom of expression among the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights reflects the degree to which this freedom was suppressed under British rule. It was a remarkable guarantee then, and remains unusual today in its scope. Even in the freest of the rest of the free world, freedom of speech is not absolute; restrictions may be loose, but they are there nonetheless. Here all expression is protected and any attempt to restrict it is subject to the most rigorous scrutiny before it can be instituted. Error, if it occurs, is meant to be on the side of greater, not less restriction.
As a result, as we’ve noted, if you are seriously committed to this most foundational of American freedoms, you have to be willing to tolerate expression that is repugnant to you – the cost of my freedom to speak is my having to tolerate yours no matter how objectionable I find it. To again ( (mis)quote Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Actually, while this quote is always attributed to Voltaire, it was probably said by a biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall).
Because of the breadth of this guarantee we Americans have never been 100% comfortable with freedom of speech. We are fine with it for expression we find agreeable or irrelevant to what we care about, but less so to the degree that what is said or written or depicted diverges from what we hold dear, and some even go so far as to try to find reasons to deny the freedom to those with whom they disagree. The FBI, particularly under the long reign of J. Edgar Hoover, was notorious for collecting dossiers on those whose speech they (read “Hoover”) found objectionable, whether it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, or anti-war protestors during the Vietnam Era.
Recently, here in Nevada, we have seen what may be a recurrence of this Hooveresque behavior on the part of the Bureau. According to an Associated Press report, the ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what federal agents reported learning about members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Northern Nevada and the “No Bear Hunt” group. The FBI would neither confirm nor deny that they are investigating those opposed to the Nevada bear hunt. This seems to be based on some heated exchanges at meetings of the Washoe County Wildlife Advisory Board and the Nevada Wildlife Commission in March, which included a County Board member saying he didn’t want to hear from the Native Americans because he didn’t want to “hear of bows and arrows,” a comment for which he later apologized. In the FOIA request, the ACLU cited reports by media, community organizations, and the public that the FBI had been “engaged in a deliberate plan to harass and intimidate those who speak out against the hunting of bears in northern Nevada.”
One could easily wax satirical about the FBI and the right to arm bears, but what is going on here? No threats have been made, the AIM is not Al Qaeda, and despite some history of militancy on the national level, the Nevada AIM branch has a different outlook and objectives than the national organization. Humor aside, this seems to represent a continuing effort by the FBI to suppress any expression they don’t like – J. Edgar Hoover’s ghost seems to still roam the halls, or at least the minds of the FBI.
To paraphrase Jefferson, the price of freedom of speech seems to be eternal vigilance, including watching those whose job it is to protect that very freedom.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bonanza Column 250 - The Price of Freedom of Speech

When I wrote last week’s column about the effects (or non-effects) of the adverse court decision on Aaron Katz and his friends I stressed that America’s foundational core value of freedom of speech made any attempt to stifle these folks, however objectionable their utterances, untenable. Little did I imagine how much the week since that column would test my and all of our commitment to that value.
In case you’ve spent the last week in a cave, there was a 12-minute video on YouTube, ostensibly a trailer for a 2-hour film called “The Innocence of Muslims.” (Whether a film exists beyond this “trailer” is one of many questions.) The clip is amateurish, badly filmed, badly acted, and above all, an unmitigated piece of anti-Islamic propaganda on a par with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for credibility. Before the clip was taken down, it was dubbed in Arabic and viewed in the Muslim world, provoking protests, riots, and deaths, including the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi.
The film is the work of one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an LA service station owner with a checkered criminal history. Nakoula, who used the pseudonym “Sam Bacile” on the film, is apparently an Egyptian Coptic Christian. Others were involved, including Terry Jones, a Florida preacher who helped promote the video. Jones first drew international attention when, in July 2010, he announced on social media websites his intention to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States by holding an "International Burn a Quran Day.” He eventually did burn a copy or the Quran, sparking his own set of riots in the Arab world.
Once again we have a case of protected free speech causing enormous negative repercussions. Ambassador Chris Stevens was considered by Libyans to be a real friend and advocate for them and a very positive representative of the US. The others killed were another State Department officer and two ex-Navy Seals. It is impossible to find anything but waste and destruction in the deaths and damage done by the riots, and equally impossible in my view to lay the responsibility anywhere but with the film’s makers, distributors, and publicists. I cannot conceive of any motivation these people might have other than to foment violence by Muslims so that they could then say “see, I told you!”
And yet, as Americans, we must protect their rights to speech, however abominable that speech may be. The rest of the world, particularly the Arab world, has trouble understanding this. Simultaneously with (and unrelated to) the riots over the film, an Indian cartoonist was charged with sedition for publishing cartoons pointing out government corruption. As in India, the world’s largest democracy, so in most of the world - there are limits on speech and governments do not hesitate to enforce these limits. No wonder, then, the “Arab Street” looks to the US government to punish the makers of this nasty piece of work, and our not doing so adds fuel to the notion that the government and people of the US agree with these vermin.
If you take a principled stand, the world will test your resolve, and this is quite a test. The problem with freedom is that it requires responsibility. As Justice Holmes said, “your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.” Similarly, your right to say what you want ends at incitement to riot, but barring a direct call to arms, that requires proving intent, which is hard to do, so we have to err on the side of protecting speech under the First Amendment rather than restricting it.
When the actor Patrick Duffy’s parents were murdered, he said that as practicing Buddhist he could not demand the murderer be punished as the act was self-punishing – the murderer would suffer for thousands of lives for what he did. I’d like to believe the same for Mssrs. Nakoula, Jones, and their ilk. Living under the US Constitution is a gift and a privilege, and abuses such as this give ammunition to those who would take those rights away so that their voice is all that can be heard. We allow that, we pay with our souls.