Friday, September 25, 2009

In the interest of Decorum

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, September 25, 2009

The uproar over Representative Joe Wilson (R., SC) and his daring accusation shouted during President Obama’s address to Congress indicates a disturbing trend in American politics and the news coverage it generates. It seems that the streets and avenues of our capital city were so greatly shaken by Wilson’s two-word outcry – “You lie!” – that emergency measures had to be taken to prevent wholesale destruction of our society and the defilement of those hallowed halls of Congress.

As if Joe Wilson’s words had somehow represented a huge belly flop upon the glass-like smooth surface of our Congress’ moral and ethical swimming pool, our leaders immediately issued an official rebuke, which was approved, oddly enough, along party lines. It apparently does not break the surface of said pool if one fails to follow the tax codes that they sign into law for all of the other citizens, nor does it seem to matter if you solicit the services of prostitutes or hide thousands of bribery dollars in your refrigerator.

I am aware that all things should be done decently and in order if we are to maintain a modicum of civilized debate. I do not advocate disrespect for authority, nor do I applaud when someone demonstrates a lack of esteem toward others by shouting expletives or derogatory slang terms about a person’s ethnicity.

Therefore, I think that Mr. Wilson’s actions were not helpful to the discussion on health care, and, according to a recent interview, he concurs with that assessment. In fact, he realized his mistake and accepted full responsibility within minutes of leaving the chamber. He took the initiative to call Rahm Emanuel with the intent of having him deliver a heartfelt apology to Obama – an apology that was acknowledged and accepted the following day.

That should have been the end of the matter, right?

Foolish we are if we think that this congress should let this pass between the two men involved. No sir, we must broaden this to encompass our society as a whole. We must take precious time and waste taxpayers’ dollars to issue a statement that carries no weight nor serves any other purpose. It will not make the other members of congress more respectful and it does nothing to clean up the ethical cesspool in which many of its members continue to swim.

What then did it accomplish and why was it so important to get this formal rebuke in the Congressional Record? Well, I believe it accomplished the goal of keeping some vital issues off the front page and leading news stories, and putting trivial matters front and center; rather than addressing the issue that inspired Wilson to question Obama’s veracity, i.e. whether or not there were sufficient firewalls within the proposed bill to prevent illegal aliens from jumping on the “free health care” bandwagon.

One inconvenient truth that is lost in this uproar is that prior to Joe Wilson’s challenge, there was not clear language within the bill that would preclude those who dishonor our laws at the border from drinking at the same trough as those who follow the legal procedures to gain citizenship in this great nation.

Another consequence to this endeavor within the Democrat leadership is to use Joe Wilson as a convenient whipping boy. It is their hope that they can destroy the reputation and political career of a man who served his country with honor; and who raised four sons who also served or are currently serving on the fields of battle. But more than that, they desire to squelch all political speech that runs counter to their ideals.

The other disturbing aspect of this episode is that some self-righteous politicians have taken the opportunity to stand before cameras and microphones and wax poetic about how Wilson somehow represents an undercurrent of racism. They charge that any person whose skin does not contain the same level of melanin as our president’s skin must be racist if they speak critically of his policies. They also claim that the mass demonstration of concerned citizens in our nation’s capital last week, and the ones who stand to speak out at town hall meetings, are all racially motivated.

This is a revived form of McCarthyism in which accusations of racism or even unreasoned opposition (Party of NO) can be thrown about without merit or proof, and the accused is burdened with proving them false. If this policy of hindering speech and questioning the motives of critics continues, our nation will suffer continual division.

The Decline of Civility

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, September 25, 2009

The outburst from Joe Wilson during the president’s address to a joint session of Congress was troubling, but it did not exist in a vacuum.

Recently, the New Yorker magazine printed a story on Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” a photographic collection that criticized many, at the time, for presenting a negative commentary on American society and lifestyle. Frank’s photos, in fact, simply captured moments of truth and reality that can sometimes be painful to those who seek to ignore their own blemishes.

Today, the painful truth is that there is an ugliness that is emerging in our culture. We can choose to ignore it, or deny it, but it is becoming clear that our baser instincts are dominating our social structure. Important and complex issues have been reduced to the equivalent of points in a sporting event, as pundits and talking heads seek the upper hand at any cost.

Many have referred to racism as a potential factor to explain the nature of the current hostility throughout the country. Perhaps people are searching for the impetus that has driven so many of the privileged to the streets with such intensity of emotion.

The fact is that the fiery town hall meetings and raucous rallies have drawn few people of color. And, some of the signs and t-shirts on display have connoted racism and xenophobic hatred of immigrants, even if they don’t explicitly depict slurs.

Some stand up in objection and mock offense at words from people like former President Jimmy Carter. Some argue that in the post-racial Obama era, racism has been officially declared over. However, some of these same detractors project a tone in their criticism of Obama that appears infected with racial prejudice.

Most of us would deny any implication that we have racist inclinations. For instance, I consider myself to be forward-thinking and open-minded. I am sensitive to prejudice and would like to describe myself as colorblind. Yet, if I employ the same honest introspection I spoke of above, the ugliness of racism appears in my reactions to the world around me. As with the other day in Elmira, I saw an Oldsmobile with custom wheel rims and though the windows were too darkly tinted for me to tell, I envisioned the driver as African-American. I am not proud of the presumptions then conjured up by my subconscious about the character of this unknown fellow driver. Again, this past weekend when visiting Erie, Pennsylvania with my son, I found myself making judgments about the neighborhood through which we were walking, based solely on the faces of those we met on the street.

While I don’t believe that racism is entirely behind the protests going on currently, and while I believe the accusations leveled against protesters in some ways muddy the waters even more, I do think we need to accept the truth that we do not live in post-racial times.

But racism only contributes to part of the animosity that is fueling the fire of fury in the U.S. A general decay of decorum has left us rude and crass. The divisiveness that drives us apart has spiraled into a dark tone that has blotted out the light that would otherwise illuminate the facts at issue.

What I see in rallies and town halls is a rage leveled at political parties and their members. I see hatred of certain politicians and blind praise of others. I see the win or lose mentality overshadow discussion of real issues that affect real people.

It is no surprise that society has regressed to this point. We have lost the common sense of respect that my generation grew up with. When I was a kid, the president’s picture was on the wall of every classroom. Our parents would not have even thought of preventing us from listening to a speech given by him.

Today our athletes hurl language and threats at officials that would make the infamous John McEnroe blush. Today, we aren’t outraged that a musical artist rudely interrupts another’s award acceptance speech with an appeal against the results. Today, we accept defamation of character on baseless grounds and hold no one to account for the attacks they wage.

The right to free speech is sacred and vital to democracy. Sports arenas and entertainment venues are immaterial to the real problems that need solving in most of our lives. But as civility perishes, those issues are drowned out by the din of shouted insults and bumper sticker jibes. With the demise of decorum comes the death of hope and change.

We will be left with the status quo, which many of us can ill afford. We will be left with a nation divided into blue and red. We will be left fighting over empty ideals and meaningless ideologies.

Aligning Our Interests

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, September 11, 2009

I must begin this week’s column with a confession that I am no expert in the subject of climate change. I don’t have a strong scientific background or credentials that would give me any authority on the topic.

That said, I find it frustrating to hear some pundits ranting about how the cool temperatures of this July and August disprove theories of global warming. “Those silly tree-hugging environmentalists want us to give up our SUVs for this hoax that is plainly untrue,” they more or less say as the polar ice caps melt and storms rage and typhoons engulf entire cities. These talking heads spout their hype as studies are released about dangerously high levels of greenhouse gasses.

While some may choose to ignore the inconvenient truth of climate change (or worse, attempt to disprove it), I feel confident that mankind is continuing to contribute to the atmospheric pollution that will eventually kill millions, lay waste global coastal regions and devastate our planet. The situation reminds me of something the late George Carlin once said. Speaking of climate change, he mentioned that people were always saying “save the planet.” He assured his audience that the planet was going to be just fine, but that we people were all going to eventually go away.

At a recent talk given by author Michael Dowd (Thank God for Evolution), I asked him if he was optimistic that we would be able to avoid self-destruction, he answered in the affirmative but added “if not, my money is on cockroaches.” His point was that “low” forms like bacteria and insects stand a better chance of survival than we advanced humans.

Part of Dowd’s prescription for survival was the realization that interests need to converge. Our survival as a species relies on our ability to accept the fact that we are all in this together and that our fates are intertwined. In order to address the problem of climate change (and other issues that threaten our existence) we must bring corporate interests, political interests, global interests, human interests, and environmental interests in line. This requires giving corporations, governments and individuals incentives to do the right thing. Unfortunately this is not easily done.

One attempt at this may be the cap and trade bill that passed in the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate. Its stated purpose is to provide incentives for businesses to operate greener by setting limits on carbon emissions and allowing heavy polluters to purchase credits from operators that produce smaller carbon footprints.

The problem with this legislation, and the problem with much other legislation that seeks to do the right thing, is that the interests discussed above are not yet aligned. This is further complicated by a systemic imbalance of those interests. Interests of the individual lag far behind political interests and even farther behind those of corporations. Last in line, quite far behind the interest of individuals is the environment. The fact that our current two-party political system is so firmly entangled in a corporate death-grip makes it plain whose interests will win out.

The current debate over health care reform illustrates this imbalance. The GOP has been successful in shifting the narrative to corporate concerns. I remember hearing Senator Chuck Grassley interviewed on Fox News before the August recess. While he discussed the proposal that was before the House at the time for nearly ten minutes, he didn’t once mention the interests of the uninsured or the shortfalls of the current system. What he did mention three times was that the health care industry represented one-third of the economy. The next morning on NPR, Grassley softened his rhetoric a bit but reminded listeners of the potential impact on the economic interests of the corporate medical industry. And many politicians and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have been reminding Americans that we cannot afford to overhaul health care in the current recession.

Likewise the argument against cap and trade (as well as any other climate-related legislation) is that it will kill jobs and pass an economic burden on to consumers as a virtual energy tax. I believe that legislation can produce green jobs if properly executed; however, I believe it is unlikely that corporate America will provide the brain power or the impetus to bring these jobs to the market. And without corporate support, there is little will within Congress to facilitate change.

Lobbying is an important part of our legislative process as a democratic republic. The question is which lobby wields the greatest influence. Currently, corporate lobbies are an overwhelming force and the loudest voice on the floor. Part of the problem is the broken electoral process that requires so much capital that even well-intentioned public servants find themselves beholden to energy companies and the like. Therefore, the voice of the individual and the concerns of the environment are neglected.

Another part of the problem is a different inconvenient truth. We as citizens fail to see our interests threatened by climate change. Or, if we do recognize the threat we largely choose to defer sacrifice until tomorrow rather than alter our lifestyles. Until we as individuals recognize that we share common interests with nature and the environment, effective and meaningful climate-related legislation will not come.

The Real Danger Zone

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, September 11, 2009

First of all, let me say that I applaud my fellow columnist’s candor when he states his lack of credentials and his weak scientific background in the area of global climate change. I only wish that our legislators (and even our former vice president) shared his honesty. Sadly though, it seems that they feel as if their position of authority grants them authority to speak on every issue with the same weight of authenticity. That alone would be sad, but it goes from sad to bad when they pass legislation based upon that false sense of authority.
I would love to take the opportunity to debate the validity of the “evidence” used by Gore and others who take on the Chicken Little role, running to and fro, clucking about a falling sky and a shrinking ice cap. However, I feel this is not the place or time for that debate. Suffice it to say that for every expert they hold up, I could find two experts to stand behind me in opposition to them.
Also, before I go on, I must say that I truly love our planet, and I gladly pay the extra fees for my hunting licenses and ammunition to help preserve its natural areas and its wildlife. I believe she is one of the most unique planets created by our benevolent Creator. She is miraculously designed and wonderfully appointed for the purpose of sustaining life. I abhor any who would willfully defile her face or avariciously waste her resources. I am in favor of conservation and I would gladly add my voice in condemnation of those who pollute or destroy our environment.
My intent here is not to fight over who loves our earth more or who is most diligent in its protection. I am writing today to warn you of a very real and verifiable danger to our earth and to our economy.
I am speaking of the legislation passed by the House of Representatives this past June known as HR 2454, the Waxman-Markey Clean Energy Bill. By a narrow 219 – 212 vote, our representatives signed on to a bill that, according to Waxman’s website, would revitalize our economy with the creation of millions of “green” jobs (as opposed to what? Blue or red jobs?), increase our national security, and preserve our planet by reducing the pollution that causes global warming. Okay, sounds good, right? Well, let’s examine this legislation a little more closely.
To begin with, those three short premises listed above required over 1,200 pages of legalese to delineate and once again, as with the other voluminous bills produced by this Congress, few of the signees have taken on the responsibility of reading it before attaching our names, by proxy, to it.
I don’t have the space here to detail all of the dangers in this bill, so I will highlight a couple and hope it encourages a few of you to investigate my claims and to speak to our senators if those claims concern you.
This bill will create another large government bureaucracy that will oversee the daily operations of almost every business in our nation. This alone would stifle job creation and hinder productivity, when our nation needs an increase of both to help us out of this recession. The pages and pages of regulations and incomprehensible procedures would require most corporations to spend valuable employee hours and untold legal fees in an effort to comply with burdens that foreign competitors would not have to carry. This extra cost would be passed on to domestic consumers and, by extension, make foreign products even more attractive. Our economy would suffer and job losses would continue to escalate.
The target levels of CO2 emissions mandated by this bill are unrealistic for two reasons. The aim of the bill is to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels to one billion tons from the 2005 benchmark of six billion. That relates to the level emitted during 1910, when our population was 92 million and per capita income (in 2008 dollars) was less than $7,000.00. Do they intend for us to return to those days?
The second reason this is unrealistic is the fact that even by International Energy Agency projections, the goal of 450 parts per million (ppm) on the global scale would never be reached, even if all participating nations reduced their ppm to zero!
In conclusion, it seems that this congress and administration are rushing this bill through without due research or discussion, just as they did with the stimulus bill, and as they tried to do with the health care bill. There is a tricky reason for this and it has to do with the upcoming Copenhagen climate conference in December. These lawmakers know that when Americans hear China and India refuse to limit their own emissions, we would be left holding the bag full of stifling regulatory limits upon our economy while our global competitors gleefully increase production and increase our corporate bankruptcies.