Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

America! Land of the free and home of the weird.

The latest incarnation of our national obsession with all things strange comes to us via “The Birthers” a bizarre ensemble of true believers bent on convincing the rest of us that President Obama wasn’t actually born in America and therefore is constitutionally forbidden to live in the White House. I suppose we should be grateful that these conspiracy theorists are agreed that the president was actually born and not delivered by aliens from outer space.

Egged on by such paragons of objectivity as CNN commentator Lou Dobbs and Liz Cheney, former Vice-President Dick’s doubting daughter, this most recent batch of patriotic rebels are making their convictions known by zealously penning letters to their local editors, disrupting nationally televised press conferences and flooding the pages of the world wide web with their fervent certainties.

Despite indisputable evidence, these birthers will, I suspect, go to their graves firm in their conviction that we foolish fellow citizens failed to grasp the vast conspiracy perpetrated upon us by sinister and probably socialist forces. There they will join the dozens of others who so valiantly tried to sway the rest of us into joining in the certainty that Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon, JFK was shot by the CIA and those planes never actually plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Many years ago, one of my buddy’s mom, in fit of patriotic fervor, took some of us kids from the neighborhood to a packed Los Angeles Sports Arena on a school night, no less. But instead of watching the Lakers go at the Celtics as we had hoped, we sat in soporific stupors as one speaker after another went after Communists, Atheists and even an occasional God-forsaken Democrat. It was called The Moral Rearmament Movement and it, too, was bent on warning an ignorant citizenry of the dangers that lurked all around us. As the evening wore on and just about the time I started questioning the patriotism of some of the kids in my 6th grade class, a famous singer strode to the platform and tearfully promised all of us that he would take a gun and kill his three daughters before he would allow them to fall into the clutches of the dirty commies who were hiding behind every movie set in Hollywood. I never heard his songs again without worrying what those three girls must have thought when word got back to them of their father’s vow.

But such is the way of the true believer. Nothing will stand in the way of their sense of righteousness, especially not the facts. There is, in Petersburg, Kentucky, a museum dedicated to the proposition that the universe was created in 6 days. It is an overwhelming success with creationists flocking through the doors to affirm their conviction that 99.99% of the world’s scientists are dead wrong with their godless evolutionary ideas.

Locally, several dentists have had to take time out from their dutiful drilling to describe, once again, that fluoride is not a plot by our government to take control of our obviously diminishing brains but a scientifically proven method for protecting us from cavities.

Recently, I was talking with a friend who is planning on hosting a big party at a Breckenridge restaurant on December 22, 2012. That is the day after the world, according to an ancient Mayan calendar, is supposed to come to an end. I’m already planning to attend…but only if the black helicopters don’t swoop down into Silverthorne and capture me first.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Thirty-five years ago this summer I quit smoking and I can still remember the agony of withdrawal to this very day. I went to bed for three days. My hair hurt. My head ached. My hands trembled but somehow I managed to go from 30 ciggies a day to none in the course of those 72 hours and I’ve stayed on the wagon ever since. But it certainly wasn’t easy. I still have a great deal of empathy for folk who are struggling with the N drug. I know for a personal fact how difficult it is to give it up.

I took my leap after watching a PBS program on the dangers of smoking that included graphic images of lungs and hearts that had once been inside smokers’ bodies. The evidence was painfully irrefutable and I was compelled by that evidence to give it up.

This week I became aware of some other startling and disturbing evidence that demands a similar response. Hundreds of pages of documentation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that driving a vehicle while talking on a cell-phone is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. Research in 2002 reveals that nearly a thousand fatalities that year and 240,000 accidents were the direct result of driving while engaged in a cell-phone conversation.

What may be equally disturbing is that this information was withheld from the public by direct orders from the U.S. Department of Transportation for fear that it would affect billions of dollars in future financing. The similarities between this cover-up and the aggressive tactics of the tobacco industry to deny the dangers of smoking are strikingly parallel and point, once again, to the role money and profit play in our political processes.

One can fairly assume that the multi-billion dollar cell-phone industry would be highly anxious to avoid any link between the use of their products and carnage on the highways. Just as the tobacco industry poured millions of dollars into attempting to block any governmental restrictions upon their deadly products, one can easily imagine the cell-phone industry attempting to wield a similar campaign behind the closed doors of the Department of Transportation and the Congress.

In any case, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the evidence is now public and politicians will find it increasingly difficult to avoid their sworn duty to protect the citizenry from the danger of distracted drivers. The Department of Transportation’s own data now indicates that at any given time 12% of all drivers are engaged in cell-phone conversations.

I doubt there isn’t a person reading this who can’t immediately recall a time when someone either caused or nearly caused an accident while being distracted by a phone conversation. This newly released evidence only confirms what most of us have witnessed innumerable times. The question now is whether the government will take action against this dangerous behavior.

If you’re anywhere near as old as me, you will probably remember the advertisements in magazines like Life and Time that depicted doctors lighting up their favorite cigarettes. The now astounding claims were for everything from calming the nerves to soothing the throat. Everyone smoked. How could it be bad for you?

When the evidence finally was made clear and the government forced the tobacco industry to print those sobering words on the side of every pack and in the corner of every advertisement, millions of addicts broke free from their dangerous habit.

Will this new evidence create a similar effect? Will a sensible citizenry combine with responsible political leaders to ban this obviously dangerous practice?

I quit smoking before the current plethora of prohibitions on smoking was put into effect. Scientific evidence convinced me of the dangers of my habit before the government began enacting laws. Will I be able to do the same again?

My hair is already beginning to hurt.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas’ strong words were rendered mute by the revered conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, last week when the couple flew to Switzerland to take advantage of that country’s liberal laws on assisted suicide. With the help of the organization Dignitas, Mr. and Mrs. Downes drank a small vial of poison and ended their lives as they had spent the last 54 years, together.

Euthanasia is a Greek word meaning, “good or happy death” but I am sure there are many who see the Downes’ joint demise as anything but. In spite of Mrs. Downes’ terminal cancer diagnosis, many critics will decry her suicide as morally repugnant, justifiably illegal and, for the religious, a mortal sin. Her husband’s voluntary act of joining her in death will cause even more consternation. Although Sir Edward’s health was failing…he had become nearly blind and deaf…he might easily have lived for a number of additional years. But the thought of living without his beloved spouse was apparently unacceptable and so they flew to Zurich to die.

The arguments against such an unalterable action have been made in a myriad of ways over the years.

The primary question in most of these battles revolves around the issue of responsibility. Who is ultimately responsible for your life? Some would suggest that the answer is obvious and that it falls to each individual to make his or her own decisions regarding the care of their own lives. Such a rationale makes The Downes’ decision an honorable one. No one has the right, many would argue, to tell someone either how or how long one must live.

But, of course, things can get very complicated when others become involved. We are bound by laws and shaped by standards that do indeed inform our decisions as to both how and how long we are to live. Most folk in the medical profession feel duty bound to do all they can to prolong life. Many among the clergy see any attempt to accelerate the dying process as a blatant interference with the intentions of God. Some others see even the decision to ease a person into death through the use of pain-killing drugs as a slippery slope to a more liberal acceptance of euthanasia practices. It is a highly charged and extraordinarily complicated issue to be sure.

For The Downes, the decision was made easier because of the support of their children. A son, Caractacus Downes, issued this statement after the death of his parents: “After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. They wanted to be next to each other when they died. They held hands across the beds. It is a very civilized way to be able to end your life.”

My past experience of being with a good many folk as they lay dying has certainly shaped my opinions about my own final days. The needless suffering I have witnessed, the extraordinary prolongation of a few last hours and the feverish attempts to defeat the inevitable, have convinced me of the value of a “good or happy death”.

The growing popularity and utilization of the hospice movement has allowed many to spend their last days in peace, knowing that the unavoidable will at least be attended to with compassion and comfort.

Although most of us tend to forego thoughts of our own dying and death, it can be an enormous gift to family and friends to take the time now to carefully describe in a Living Will, or other similar form, the kind of care you wish and the procedures you will permit in your final days. Living-will forms are available on-line and from many religious organizations. Their legality continues to be argued but the clarity of your desires will always be appreciated by those who someday must make decisions on your behalf.

Judging from comments reported in various news media, the Downes’ family and friends appear not to be overly surprised by the couples’ decision to die together. It appears to be in keeping with their frequently expressed philosophy of life which, as can be seen in this dramatic example, can also shape one’s death.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Oh no, not again!

It appears one more conservative icon has fallen off the politically appropriate pedestal. Only this time the fall wasn’t caused by an Argentine mistress, a co-worker’s wife, a too narrow bathroom stall or even a ditzy farewell address. No, this symbol of sanctified esteem fell from old-school prominence primarily because he began espousing New Deal-like principles and down-right leftist leanings.

Such treasonous behavior to the traditionalist cause can be found throughout the fallen hero’s 28,000 word document released just this past Tuesday under the decidedly un-American sounding title of “Caritas In Veritate”. Surely the fervently faithful followers of laissez faire capitalism must cringe when they read of their former champion’s call for a “redistribution of wealth” and an international governing body that would oversee and regulate world economies.

That rumble you hear is Milton Friedman rolling over in his grave.

Ronald Reagan may be doing the same if word gets to him of what our writer thinks of the old “trickle-down” system of social welfare: “business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference.”

And listen to this...” The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.” Was that Ayn Rand who just started spinning?

Wait! There’s more. “The development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side.” If that isn’t leftist lingo I don’t know what is.

Here’s just one more example of why our conservative friends and enemies are wringing their hands and shaking their heads...” there is urgent need of a true world political authority.” A New World Order! What more evidence does one need to see how a hero of the right has become so wrong?

By now, of course, you have discerned that the source of disappointment among conservatism’s disciples is Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical that certainly challenges much of conventional conservative thinking. It must be more than a little disconcerting for folk who have been under the impression that the Catholic Church in America was essentially the Republican Party at prayer to discover that the Pope isn’t in their political pulpit.
Those who thought they had America’s Catholics locked into the conservative cause are starting to question their presumptions. When a Jesuit priest, Father Thomas Reese, writing in the Washington Post states that “…he (Benedict) is to the left of almost every politician in America.” … you have to think that conservatives have to re-think. The current school of thought that has Evangelicals and Catholics united under the Republican banner is beginning to realize it is time to go back to class.

Of course, liberals have done their share of fulfilling the old saw that says when one presumes to assume they make only an ass out of u and me. Any student of recent history is well aware that the old rules no longer apply. Labor has left the liberal fold, an African-American heads the Republican Party and the Democratic South long ago went south.

Still, this week’s declaration by Pope Benedict may have some sitting on the left side of the aisle in Congress searching for a seat at this Sunday’s Mass.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

July 4, 2009

Today is our most important national holiday and that means everyone should get the day off, including newspaper columnists. So here’s one, slightly updated, from the archives…

“May I have a name, please?” the kind young woman asked as she finished relaying my tall latte order to her co-worker.

In the nanosecond or two that bridged the gap between her question and my response, a strange and potent power seemed to make its presence known deep within the gaps of my psyche. Here was my chance, I surmised, to change my identity. I could, with the ease of unchallenged conversation, simply become someone other than myself.

For instance, I might stare deeply into her rather unresponsive hazel eyes and say, “They call me Steel” and see if such nomenclature might buckle her probably aching knees. Or, if I was feeling a need to convince myself and any overhearing others that I possess intellectual powers now abundantly lacking, I might respond to her innocent request by squinting more than a little, push the bridge of my glasses higher up on my formidable nose and say, “Albert” or, “Leonardo”, if I’m feeling that bold.

My mother once mentioned that I bore a striking resemblance to Paul Newman or maybe it was Danny DeVito. No matter. Now was my chance to try on either for size. Actually, I have for many years now spent too much time wondering what it would be like to have a book on the bestseller list. “John” (as in Grisham), I could say or “Chicken” (as in Soup).

Isn’t this fun? OK maybe fun isn’t exactly the right word but surely you can see the myriad of possibilities that present themselves. You call the restaurant to make your reservation but instead of something as prosaic as Jones or Smith or Mayfield, we get to say, “Ferrari” or “Buffett” or maybe “J. Biden” if you’re feeling really cheeky. I’ll bet the table waiting for you won’t be by the bathroom door.

I probably shouldn’t admit this but, just between you and me, I sometimes am not completely honest when someone asks what it is I used to do. Like changing my name, I have been tempted not to fully reveal my former professional status to strangers. Over the years I have found such a pronouncement can, and very quickly, end conversation and put dampers on any fun. Once on a chairlift, I was, most hospitably, offered a share in my seat-partner’s marijuana joint. My smiling declination did not prevent him from sharing two-thirds of his life story by the time we were half way up the lift. As we hit the mid-point, he inquired as to my former profession. Honestly I told him and, honestly, he never said another word.

Another time, on a two and a half hour flight to California, the fellow sitting next to me offered me something very different than my acquaintance on the lift. This guy gave me nothing more than a big smile. But then he opened up a Bible and began to feverishly take notes, underlining whole chapters. He would frequently turn toward me in a not too subtle invitation to conversation. I buried myself in my book and pretended not to notice his very public piety. Had he asked I would, without question, have told him anything but the truth. I’m nauseous enough when I fly.

“Pierre”, I could say with one raised eyebrow, hinting of exotic locales. “Igor” I could grunt and experience, if only momentarily, what it might be like to be an intimidator rather than always the intimidatee.

My dad had the wonderful name “Max”, although I never appreciated it when I was a kid. I wanted an old man with a moniker like “Joe” or “Bud”. “Max” always seemed more mousy than macho. People named their dogs “Max” not their people. Only now that he’s gone I miss hearing his name. So here was my chance to honor his memory. Should I take it?

I once knew a man named “Caroll”. Johnny Cash knew a boy named “Sue”. I have a male friend named, “Joy”. Would it be too shocking to tell her my name was “Charlotte”? Would the laugh be worth the embarrassment of innocently shouting out “Margaret”?

The possibilities are many, the risks reasonably few. I bit my lower lip and took a deep breath. “Rich”, I said.