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Archive for June, 2008

The big news out of the polling world concerns the second installment of the three-part survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In the first part, released earlier this year, more than 80 percent of all Americans identified themselves as affiliated with one faith or another, principally Christianity. This new survey illustrates that these Americans are willing to concede that theirs may not be the only way to salvation and further, that there may be more than one way to interpret the teachings of their own religion. However, we aren’t all that flexible; more than half of those affiliated with a faith favor preserving religious traditions over adjusting to new circumstances or adopting modern beliefs and practices.  Still, I guess we should celebrate the fact that our country is adapting to its diversity and practicing a degree of tolerance unknown in other highly religious societies, like Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I was more interested in a poll that caught my eye last week, yet another one of those in which a majority of Americans think we’re on the wrong track. This is the latest of a plethora of polls (couldn’t resist) taken by media outlets left, right and center. The June AP/Ipsos poll indicates 8 in 10 think this country is “headed in the wrong direction” and assesses that “the general level of pessimism is the worst in almost thirty years.” This particular poll has been conducted since 2003; other similar surveys are older. The latest New York Times/CBS poll,  which began asking Americans to assess our success in the early nineties, shows a similar slide towards the dark side.

The state of affairs appears bleak, to be sure.  Not much good news on the  international scene (global warming, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, civil strife in countless African nations, it seems) and bad enough at home where the rising food and gas prices and record numbers of mortgage defaults are driving us crazy. Everything our government does – make that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government – seems to make it worse or at least not very much better and for better or for worse, we expect better from our government.  Hard to say whether we’re in worse shape than when air raid drills and bomb shelters were de rigeur but we Americans think so at any rate – or we’ve got short memories.

The ever-so-slight upside of all this horrible downside is I’m noticing people prioritizing, that is, understanding what needs to matter most to them and to their fellow travelers, which is key. For all Dobson’s yelling and the creationists’ ranting, we seem less concerned with whether we’re reading Genesis literally than with how we’re going to get through tomorrow. That’s actually good; I’d like to put the “cultural wars” on the back burner for awhile while we deal with real problems. With the Supreme Court’s insane ruling that all of us genuinely frightened, understandably pissed off and sometimes indulgently “entitled” folks have a right to bear arms, we’re going to need the equivalent of a group hug.  More guns in more hands – oh the thought of it! Steady nerves must prevail; otherwise we haven’t got a prayer.

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I am just returning from a trip to Alaska which, unless you happen to live there, sounds exotic. And it is. Alaska is a rare commodity in our country, a land of truly wide-open spaces. That doesn’t mean you can’t find the chains and outlets that populate our land; it’s just that instead of dominating, they defer big-time to the majesty of the wilderness. McDonald’s is no match for Mount Roberts.

 

My mind and my body frequently part company despite my best efforts, so traveling presents a challenge for me. On one hand, I love to see, smell, learn and experience what is new and unusual. On the other hand, travel invariably means little or no sleep, an unhappy stomach and aches and pains in places I don’t normally think about. The hope is that the mind takes over during special moments…and there were some very special moments in Alaska. I found myself in a kayak for the first time in years, more than holding my own with people who I figured as more, well, outdoorsy. The weather was showery and cool but when you come from 90 degrees and steamy, showery and cool is pleasant. Instead of cars, smog and noise, we were in the company of eagles, whales, dolphins and a very large sea lion. 

 

Another day found me in a helicopter over a series of glaciers. At the top of one, we landed in a sleet storm at a dog sled training camp. I never pictured myself balanced on the runners of a sled in June (or at any other time) but there I was, leaning left and right as if I’d been doing it all my life. I’ve heard people worry about how sled dogs are treated. Well, I love dogs and I’m here to report that these dogs love running sleds. They are happiest when on the move and the noise from the teams when they’re getting ready to go out is deafening, kind of like being at a rock concert if the audience was all canine. The dogs come to the camp young, where they are coddled and cuddled to get acclimated to humans. A real bonus for visitors (unless you’re a crabby sort) is getting to hold a bunch of squirming 6-week-old puppies. The dogs have constant company, plenty of food, lots of attention and affection, and a routine. Not a half bad life.

 

The dogs weren’t the only happy campers; almost everyone I met in Alaska liked what they were doing and how they were doing it. We met a woman who serves as the camp’s cook in the summer and works as a Head Start teacher in a tiny town called Haines the rest of the year. She radiated cheerfulness and good will. I envied her.

 

Being less than the intrepid traveler, I took one of the big, established cruise lines for the first time. Cruise ships are a different sort of trip and I would plan carefully and research more thoroughly before choosing one again. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of sea travel but I don’t need the floating casino, the gift shops or even the turndown service. I must admit that the stormy day at sea made me appreciate the stability of the big ships.

 

Since I don’t vacation much, I always like to ask myself how a particular trip affected me. I know, a vacation can just be a vacation but I’m a restless sort and I spend so much time in front of a computer or at a desk, I want to try and stretch my wings whenever possible. So – Alaska: I recalled my physical strengths. I pushed past my social limitations to try my hand at karaoke (I won) and the one-armed bandit (I lost). I read and thought and watched out for Northern Lights and black bears. I bonded even more closely with my sister and returned refreshed and ready for anything, even 90 degrees and steamy.

 

 

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I was truly upset to learn of the death of moderator and commentator Tim Russert. Upset because it was sudden, because he was relatively young and because he felt like a valuable and trusted friend.

Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” moderator was passionate about this year’s Presidential campaign and his excitement was contagious. I swear the man was bringing sexy back – sexy elections, where it felt “cool” to vote, to argue, to take part in debates and to get involved. Whether he was interviewing, moderating or analyzing, he managed to do so without any of the “snarky-ness” I associate with so many of today’s so-called political pundits. He didn’t suck up and he didn’t put down. He just asked really good questions.

Although there was plenty of information on Russert to be found online, if you strayed too far from MSNBC, you’d be swamped with stories about George Clooney’s breakup, Denise Richards’ feud with ex Charlie Sheehan or Tom Cruise’s new feud, whatever that’s about. Yes, that’s the way the big providers lay out their online “news” sites  – political news here, showbiz news there, sports in that other column – but to me it’s another sharp reminder that we Americans still have a long way to go in prioritizing our priorities.

“Damn,” said a good friend of mine of Russert’s death. “We’ve lost another voice of reason.”

Well said.

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When it appeared that there were now two presumptive nominees for President, I went trolling the Internet for reaction. I sought not the reputable sites or or quasi-reputable bloggers, but instead the chat rooms on places like MSN, Yahoo and AOL. I wanted to read what “regular” people were thinking. I mean, these are voters, right, so how are they engaging their thought processes?

Disappointing news from that front, I’d have to report. There do seem to be an awful lot of people with axes to grind and time on their hands. I guess the crap that passes for dialogue in some of these so-called political forums represents democracy’s ugly underbelly. I tripped upon lots of stale theories about Obama’s “Muslim” agenda, naturally. There are some wacko things being written about McCain as well, by the way; the paranoia that drives these respondents isn’t left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing to imagine that many people may place value on this kind of “information” or that they might use it as a basis for making decisions. The beauty of Internet news and Internet reporting and Internet information is supposed to be that it uncovers anything and everything. There has been no whispered aside, no private conversation, no intemperate moment possible in the Presidential race thus far, nor will there be. It’s all up for discussion, dissection and subsequent distribution. Great, no more secrets. But no filter either. It’s all so IMPORTANT (caps deliberate).

The filter is supposed to be ours. It’s our job to sort through what’s important and what’s not, where we have to focus and what we have to dismiss when evaluating the candidates. We’re supposed to know that what the candidates think about or plan to do about issues such as health care, the economy or our country’s foreign policy conduct is more pressing than what their spouses might have said privately. Maybe it’s fun to catch people in unguarded moments or to read personal letters they wrote twenty years ago and then obsess endlessly about them. It’s the ultimate Facebook-type gossip session, at least until the obsession or the rumor or the half-truth becomes cruel or dangerous or much more relevant than it deserves to be.

More of us than ever seem to know that this upcoming election is an important one, which means that perhaps more of us than ever will vote. That’s a big plus. We have more access to information on which to base our decision than ever before and that’s an even bigger plus. But not all information is equal, not to mention true.

Okay, so here’s your assignment in terms of preparing yourself to vote. There are no excuses (“They’re all the same”) and no passes (“I’ve already chosen a candidate”). This is what you do: Listen, read, think, ask, listen, read and do some more thinking. Access your own experience, your own common sense, your own conscience and your own moral compass. Weed out the excess, focus on the big picture, keep yourself informed, keep the gossip to a minimum and keep the rumors off the table. Feel free to yell, scream or flood your local stations with e-mails if you see any nasty, negative, fear-based or generally bottom-feeding commericals directed against any candidate, including local or Congressional representatives we’ll also be voting for. Be prepared, if you so choose, to discuss your choice with others. You don’t have to, of course; I just happen to be a big fan of dialogue, as long as it’s reasoned and reasonable and we need more of it to counteract the nastiness around us.

No slacking off now. The information (and misinfomration and disinformation) is coming at you fast and furious Get ready, get set and…FILTER!

 

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Many members of what they used to call the “chattering classes” (pundits, bloggers, political junkies, talking heads and the like) are yakking about Scott McClellan’s new book “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” Talk about trying to turn an old story into an exciting new headline; then again, with the primaries stretching out into what feels like a far-off future (although they’re actually over soon..right?), it might seem like fun to stir the pot. Frankly, I can’t get excited about a book with the clumsiest title I’ve run across in a long time. I mean, read the title and watch one of Mr. McClellan’s talk show appearances and you’ve got the gist of it: Washington bad, Administration bad, me, innocent and betrayed. Yeah, well, welcome to the club, Scott.

I’ve gone ahead and plunged into my summer reading, which, I admit, is usually part of my winter, fall and spring reading too, which is to say novels of intrigue, either local or international. Girly-girl though I often am, when it comes to escapism, I’m more “Iron Man” than “Sex and the City”, less Candace Bushnell than Frederick Forsyth. I like to learn while I’m having fun and I prefer the complications of conducting a spy operations in a foreign desert to the confusions of juggling men and careers in an urban jungle.

My latest read is “The Whole Truth” by David Baldacci, a DC lawyer turned novelist whose books have been what I guess you’d call political thrillers, mostly centered inside the Beltway. This new one takes him across Europe and into cyberspace. It’s a first-rate, fast-paced thriller with a scary new twist on an age-old premise: you can fool an awful lot of the people an awful lot of the time, often with very dangerous consequences. In this book, an event nearly results in World War III but the event is fake – made up and sold by a firm specializing in something called “perception management.” Things escalate very quickly; governments are threatened, lives are lost, superpowers act and react. This being a novel, one man, along with one smart and capable woman manage to bring things under some semblance of control.

Note that the term “perception management” originated with the Department of Defense and has entered the public lexicon as a synonym for persuasion. However, as noted military author and military affairs specialist Emily Goldman has written, “falsehood and deception [are] important ingredients of perception management; the purpose is to get the other side to believe what one wishes it to believe, whatever the truth may be.”

Scott McClellan’s book appears to be about truth, lies, betrayal, perception and manipulation. Go ahead and read it if you think it will surprise you. But for jaw-dropping “what ifs” or “could it be happening?” check out “The Whole Truth.” I imagine it’s a faster read and I suspect it’s going to make a far better movie.

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I suppose primaries have always been about interpreting numbers, at least as long as polling has taken place and pollsters and pundits have made predictions. But whereas the candidates usually confined themselves to making large, generalized predictions (“I will be your nominee”), those on the Democratic side seem to have let themselves be swayed by a sort of numbers shell game.

According to this new math, you measure something called “the popular vote” even though that’s not the way the primary process (especially the Democratic Party’s version of it) works. Don’t misunderstand me; the primary process is a confusing mess but it works the way it works. The one with the necessary number of delegates wins, whether these delegates are chosen by “the people” or by their representatives in caucuses or they are free-floating super-delegates who make up their minds along the way. Further, if you’re trying to make this “fair” (insofar as possible), you don’t count the votes in states where your opponent stayed off the ballot per instructions from the party leaders. Nor do you insinuate the race is over because you have a majority of delegates.

Anyway, the primary season isn’t necessarily a reflection of the way people will vote in a general election. For one thing, at the beginning of the season, the voters are split among a larger numbers of candidates. They aren’t usually asked who their second choice would be or where those votes might go after their favorite quits the race. They don’t get a do-over because the crowd has shrunk. Further, some voters may cross party lines in states where it’s permitted, to try and shake things up.

I say, if you want to make a case for counting the popular vote, change the process. Same with the general election. Meanwhile, let the games continue. More people are watching – and voting – than ever before. I may be a cockeyed optimist but I’m hoping that, even if the primaries leave some of them feeling bruised and battered, they’ll come around in the fall.

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