Thursday, September 29, 2016

We Built This

I know I’m not the only one who is appalled by the presidential election. The candidates from both major parties are terrible. The candidates from third parties are equally terrible. If we, the United States, had any sense at all, we’d ask Barack Obama to stay on for another year, and stage a do-over. This time it would be publicly funded. We could cut some money out of the Pentagon budget to use to fund the whole thing. It would take six months. No conventions, no hoopla – no dark money, no corporate cash, no Super PACs. Three months in would be a national primary – on the same day for every state. At the end of six months would be the general election. But, as this election proves, we do not possess any sense.

Like many of you, I watched part of the presidential debate on Monday night. I can usually find some cynical mirth in these sorts of proceedings, but not this time. This time I just felt sick and ashamed. Ashamed of this debacle and ashamed of all of us. We built this. It took us decades, but we built this big honking mess we find ourselves in.

It started in 1987 with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine. For those who don’t remember, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote some airtime to discussing matters of public interest. They were required to air opposing views. This was in news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. Viewers were exposed to a variety of viewpoints.

Then along came President Clinton who gave us the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a bill that the corporate media lobbies were desperate for. At the time, it was touted as a way of encouraging competition and consumer savings. Congressman John Dingell thanked God for this bill that make this country the best served, the best educated and the most successful country ... in all areas of communications." Instead, it paved the way for huge media monopolies. In 1983, Ben Bagdikian published the book, “The Media Monopoly.” He reported that at the time, 50 corporations owned the media. Thanks to Clinton, that number now stands at 6. Before the Telecommunications Act, companies were not allowed to own more than 40 radio stations. Clear Channel owns more than 1200. The name change from Clear Channel to iHeartMedia doesn’t make that any more palatable. Print media suffered, too. Gannett owns over 1000 newspapers and 600 print periodicals. I could go on endlessly – but we’re seeing what happens when there is a dearth of independent media. We get an angry, incoherent man with a ridiculous hairstyle on the verge of becoming president.

During the same basic time period, we went from a nation that had some concern for the common good, to a nation that worships at the altar of the Church of the Free Market. Greed went from being a sin to a virtue. The Reaganites celebrated selfishness. In just a few decades we went from the GI Bill to you’re on your own, Jack. When money becomes the same as speech, the people without money are not heard. Free speech has become very, very expensive. We stopped valuing education, unless it was business school. Our founders all spoke several languages, yet we’ve hunkered down into “English only” as if it were some kind of a virtue to be less educated than the men we claim to venerate.

The worship of profit uber alles and selfishness combined with a failed fourth estate has brought us to this point. The rabid ideology of the far right has our government at a standstill. We no longer produce statesmen who want to serve their country. We have far lesser men (and women) whose sole concern is party loyalty and obstructionism. The bulk of our national treasure is invested in defense, and because the Pentagon refuses to be audited, we have no accounting of where those trillions go. Our national infrastructure is crumbling, and our government refuses to do anything about it. Our telecomm infrastructure is a disaster compared to other developed countries, but it’s controlled by monopolies that have no reason to improve it. Their bottom line is what matters.

We are served a steady diet of celebrity gossip, sports worship, and stories intended to create outrage. Take a look at the WMUR website sometime. There are stories posted every day of things that happen in other states, asking for comment. They’re intended to generate outrage and pit people against one another. Drunk people doing irresponsible things, stories of bad parenting – whatever. They are stories that are none of our business. The comment sections are filled with angry, petty judges, ready to pass sentence without full knowledge of the facts. It’s a safe bet that these same petty judges couldn’t tell you what the NH Executive Council is. This is what currently passes for “news.

As a nation, we have become stupid, angry, violent and greedy – and this is playing out for us in our current election cycle. A wealthy huckster and reality TV star somehow became the nominee of the Republican Party. The man has no idea what he’s talking about most of the time, and his views change from moment to moment. Trump has absolutely no impulse control, and as we saw in the debate, he is absolutely unfit to lead our country. The guy bankrupted casinos – which is virtually impossible to do – but people want to put him in charge of the US?

Clinton comes to us with decades of baggage. Her supporters complain that decades of right wing propaganda have turned people against her. Yet knowing that, the Democrats made the choice to foist a deeply flawed candidate upon us, and did whatever it took to anoint her. Now they’re mad at people who find the flaws problematic. Gary Johnson is a Koch-funded, right-winger, who likes to smoke pot. Jill Stein is just not leadership material.

There are no better angels here. The evils are equally distributed. The consequences of this election are going to be ugly, and the long-term repercussions will be devastating to the republic.

I vote for a do-over.  


published as an op-ed in the Sept. 30 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Finding Your Inner Unicorn

William Shakespeare wrote: For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” A more familiar axiom is “clothes make the man.”

We all have favorite clothes. The clothes that make us look and feel like a million bucks. When we wear them, there’s an extra spring in our step – and we project an air of confidence. In the photo attached to this column, I’m wearing a purple silk blouse that was my favorite. It was my lucky shirt. The last time I wore it was to a job interview. I was drinking a cup of coffee in the car, hit a frost heave, and spilled coffee down the front of the shirt. In spite of the big coffee stain, I got the job. The stain never came out.

Clothes serve a variety of functions. They cover us, protect us, and keep us warm and dry. Some of us wear uniforms so that we can be easily identified as a member of the military, or perhaps a fire fighter, EMT, or police officer. Various types of clothing can also be part of ceremonies, rituals, or special occasions. Clothes can reflect how we feel, and just like mom always told you, clothes project a message. We do judge books by their covers.

My granddaughter will soon be seven. She just started second grade. I’ve been doing some back to school/birthday shopping for her. It’s been quite a learning experience.

I traipsed through some stores and then did some online shopping, and found some universal truths. Clothes for girls are mostly awful. There is no shortage of gaudy pink, cheap polyester covered with ruffles and sparkles. Faux worn and torn jeans are a big thing this year. It’s almost impossible to find a plain shirt that isn’t tarted up with lace, sequins or glitter – and that is in addition to the graphics.

Somewhere along the way, Disney decided they could sell the bejeebers out of princess crap, and began to invent new princesses to tie merchandise to, and market the heck out of it to girls and their parents. This seems to have coincided with the backlash against feminism.

Boy’s clothes haven’t changed much over the decades. Their shirts feature superheroes like Spiderman, Batman, or Captain America. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are popular again. There are shirts with dinosaurs or racecars. There are sports themed shirts, with soccer balls or basketballs, or slogans such as, “Start Fast Finish Faster,” or “Any Game Any Time.” Boy’s shirts come in plaid or stripes, and they also come in plain colors. Boys and girls both wear blue. Only girls wear pink.

The graphics on clothing for girls is an entirely different matter.
In my admittedly unscientific study, the number one graphic for a girl’s shirt is a heart. It can be covered with small hearts, or have one large. Some have the word “LOVE” inside the heart. LOVE with a heart shape replacing the O is common. Others have “There is No One Like Me” inside a big heart shape, or “Do What You Love,” inside a graphic heart. Other slogans I found: “Follow Our Dreams, They Know the Way,” “Keep Dreaming and Follow Your Destiny,” “Throw Kindness Around Like Confetti,” “Live, Love, Dream,” “Believe,” “Always Beautiful,” “Happiness is a State of Mind,” “Let Your Heart Shine,” “Lead Your Own Way,” “Let Your Light Shine,” “Happy Girls Shine Brighter,” and “Dream Big, Sparkle More, Shine Bright.” There were shirts with pictures of Barbie, kittens, unicorns, butterflies, or ballerinas. “Find your inner unicorn,” one tee shirt advises. Any sports themed shirts for girls were pink and often involved ruffles. One girls clothing company is called, “Self Esteem,” and produces clothing that seems likely to create just the opposite. Would a boy wear a vest that has tiny writing all over it reading, “Love you to the moon and back?” Do girls require so much extra reassurance that they are loved that it is necessary to print it on their clothing?

There is plenty of money to be made in selling products to girls and women. Not so much for boys and men, because they aren’t taught from the cradle to be insecure. Boys do not wear shirts telling them that happiness is a state of mind. There are no hearts emblazoned upon their clothes, or messages of love. Why doesn’t boys clothing tell them to love, to smile, to sparkle more, or follow their dreams? What kind of message does this clothing send to our girl children? What does it prepare them for? Why does a seven year old need to hear that “happiness is a state of mind?” Are we sending them off to a Zen retreat or preparing them for a lifetime of second-class citizenry?

These girls will grow to adulthood in a world where what they look like is how they are judged. We’re seeing the end result of that in the current endless presidential election cycle. If girls clothing is being designed to reinforce self esteem and steer them toward success we’re already doing something wrong.

All those hearts, all that admonition about love made me wonder. Is love an activity solely for girls?

Judging on the basis of clothing alone, we seem to expect boys to love dinosaurs and sports. We expect girls to love, smile, dream, and sparkle. It explains a lot. Dreaming is good. Dreaming isn’t threatening. One shirt read, “Future Princess” with a slash through the Princess and under it read, “Boss.” If we really want that girl to be a boss, why would the shirt need to even mention princesses? Is this a form of training, or grooming? Do we need to get girls focused on love early so they’ll grow up to love the boys who aren’t being programmed to love? So that they’ll be ready to settle for less?

I haven’t finished shopping, but after all of this, I sent my granddaughter a tee shirt that says, “Future Brain Surgeon.”

If clothes really do make the man (or woman) what kind of men and women are we trying to create?

Published as an op-ed in the September 16 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper 

Friday, September 09, 2016

Melting Ice - Shifting Sands

Go meet Marjorie and hear her story. It's a love story, it's an Alzheimer's story - and it's a story told with honesty and humor. You can hear Marjorie talk about the book on The Attitude with Arnie Arnesen, in the second half of this podcast:

Melting Ice - Shifting Sands
with Marjorie Burke 

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016, 5:30 p.m 

In partnership with the Concord Regional Visiting Nurses Association we present Melting Ice-Shifting Sand, written by Marjorie Burke of Weare, which chronicles her and her husband's experience with Alzheimer's Disease - her as the caregiver and Donald as the one living with the disease. A deeply honest and moving account of their struggle with this awful disease. Join us for a presentation and Q and A. 
Event date: 
Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 5:30pm
Event address: 
45 South Main St
ConcordNH 03301

Friday, September 02, 2016

Problem Solving 101

NH has a drug problem. Our drug problem didn’t didn’t get much attention until middle class white kids started dying. Suddenly our politicians are paying attention, and using addicts as a political football. Here are the NH numbers for the last 5 years:

2011 – 201 deaths.
2012 – 163 deaths.
2013 – 192 deaths.
2014 – 326 deaths.
2015 – 433 deaths.

So far this year there have been about 200 overdose deaths. The state epidemiologist’s office predicts there will be about 482 deaths by the end of the year.

All of the gubernatorial candidates that have websites have plans for dealing with the opioid crisis. They’re all pretty much the same. Education, treatment, and law enforcement. Some candidates have a stronger focus on law enforcement. Even the cops will tell you that they can’t arrest their way out of this. While educating  kids is never a bad thing, education is not enough to solve the problem.

The one thing no one ever brings up when they talk about strategies and solutions is the why. Why do we have so many addicts? Why do we have so many people experimenting with heroin? What is the root cause? It seems likely to me that we can’t solve a problem until we begin to try to understand why we have the problem in the first place. What is lacking in the lives of so many people?

I believe it is hope.

I’m going to saunter out into the old fart zone, and reminisce. The phrase “the common good” was in vogue when I was a wee lass. A high school graduate could get a job and have the potential to move up the advancement ladder. (Heck, a high school drop out could, too.) Companies valued their employees and rewarded years of loyalty with things like regular raises and retirement pensions. It was a time when many people had a job with the same company for their entire working life. The American Dream was a reality for most people.

Then along came the 80’s. An actor from California was elected president. We learned that everything that was wrong was because the government was bad. The phrase “the common good” was discarded in favor of phrases like “welfare queen,” “trickle down economics,” and “evil empire.” Greed and selfishness began their takeover of the American mindset. The belief in the common good morphed into a Galtian version of “you’re on your own, Jack.”

A young person in the north country has little chance of finding or creating a good job. The failure of our state to invest in infrastructure works against them. In fact – the failure of our state to invest is part of the problem. We begrudge every dime we spend on education, and we make sure to tout that at every opportunity. NH ranks dead last in spending on post-secondary education. If we tripled the amount tomorrow, we’d still be dead last. Mississippi – the poorest state in the nation spends more on state colleges than NH – and NH is the seventh wealthiest state in the nation. (We aren’t ashamed of this.) The cost of a college education means taking on a lot of debt for students that don’t qualify for scholarships. Once that education is complete – then what? NH is not exactly a mecca for good paying jobs.

We are surprised when our kids leave our state and don’t return; yet we offer them few reasons to stay. Working two or three jobs to try to stay afloat isn’t anyone’s idea of a life plan. It used to be that if you worked that hard, you could at least afford a modest little house and a family, but those days are long gone.

I grew up in a more innocent and idealistic time. JFK was reminding us to ask what we could do for our country. His question was aimed at far more than donning a uniform and going off to fight in one of our endless wars. Kennedy was one of the founders of the Peace Corps. Young people coming of age today haven’t experienced anything but endless war. They’ve grown up in a country where the corporate media monopolies mostly fail to inform us about anything other than celebrity gossip and sports.

The goal-oriented kids will almost always turn out okay. It’s the kids who don’t have a gravitational pull toward a particular area of study or career that are more likely to get lost. 

They see a nation at odds with itself, in a state of perpetual war. They live in a state that fails to invest in them – or anything else. Climate change is damaging the planet – yet politicians with no scientific background deny science. Every message is conflicting. There is no cohesive vision of a shared future – only the promise of more conflict and endless war. It’s only a surprise that the 30-year slide into national nihilism didn’t start killing us sooner. 

As long as the medication of choice for hopelessness was alcohol, we didn’t care. It was bought in our state stores, after all, and kept our economy afloat. In 2000, the Alcohol Fund was created, to take 5% of the profit from our multi-million dollar booze biz, and use the money for treatment, education, and prevention. The fund became active in 2003, the only year that it was fully funded. Since then, every year, the funding mechanism has been suspended, and the monies go right to the general fund. Over the last twenty years, the treatment and mental health systems that were once in place have been systematically dismantled. No one cared much, as long as it was just booze. It is cynical, but it is how we fund our state. Cheap booze and butts, sold on the highways.

Now that middle class kids are dying from heroin overdoses, suddenly everyone cares. Don’t read me wrong, I’m glad people are starting to pay attention. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long. This is NH, where we’d prefer to pay the pound of cure, and we do, at every exhausting opportunity.

NH is now rebuilding treatment infrastructure. Everyone running for office has a plan for “solving” the opioid crisis. The plans provide a good starting point, but the deeper issues must be examined. We cannot prevent what we don’t fully understand.

“Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” Robert Louis Stevenson

This was published as an op-ed in the September 2 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper.