Friday, November 23, 2007

The New Moscow

So when it rains it pours, I suppose. This makes 3 blog postings, three days in a row. I may have to go radio silent for the next six months just to keep up my reputation. Anyway, I ran across some fascinating articles that depict modern life in Moscow rather accurately.

What's Moscow like for foreigners in Russia? This discusses a few things that people generally attribute to life in Russia: namely, crime.

One of the more distasteful characteristics of modern Russian culture: the Russian rich. If you were to look up "tasteless" in the dictionary, you might find references to the new Russian monied class.

There really are a lot of delightful aspects to living out here. They're just sort of intangible. When my friends ask me what makes me like Russia so much, I have a hard time answering. The food isn't particularly memorable. The weather is a little bit intimidating - the temperature dropped to 5 degrees Fahrenheit last week. But Russia - and even Moscow - is really quite charming. It just takes some getting used to.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A final word

One final comment on my lengthy political diatribe: Pointing out inconsistencies is really not hard. It also makes you feel smugly self-satisfied, in your own right. Perhaps I took a self-serving pleasure in penning these responses, as if I'm announcing to the world that I've got it figured out, and the other folks don't. I hope that's not who I am, because then I wouldn't be much different from those who instigate and author the one-sided views that I'm criticizing. I sometimes just want to add my voice to the cacophony of political discourse with a plea for a little bit of moderation and willingness to listen. My Mother taught me that this is a good life skill for most interpersonal interaction. Heaven knows I'm still pretty hard-headed. But thanks for trying, Mom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

You might be a democrat if....

So I received a forwarded email today that really got me steaming. I realize that I get messages like this because people somehow continue to assume that I'm a kool-aid drinking Republican. Or at least a sympathizer. I realize that to some degree, no one's perspectives are completely objective, including my own. But we're not even trying to be objective when we pass around irrational, vitriolic, immature attacks on opposing political groups that tend to ignore the real issues. Issues are important. They deserve to be thoughtfully and respectfully discussed by grown-ups. Unfortunately, issues are often transformed in to silly little sound bytes that are designed not to enlighten, but rather to divide and alienate. As I was responding to this email, I said to myself: "Self! You need to blog this! Enough of saving starfish one email at a time! We're mass-communicating, here!"

So the original email message was one of those things that's been passed around like a 6-year-old's chewing gum. You don't know who started it, and it's just as tasteless. The title? "If you want to be a GOOD Democrat, you must have certain basic beliefs." It then lists these beliefs. But remember, it's written by Republicans for Republicans, and is meant not to enlighten, but to oversimplify and demean. So these aren't really Democrats' beliefs, but rather dumbed-down condescending sound bytes. This makes the author and his readers feel more comfortable in their own inadequate understanding or representation of the issues. They blow out others' candles to make their own seem brighter.

So let's get a little air circulating over all the candles. Here's the list of 26 defining characteristics for Democrats, as seen by a spiteful, anonymous Republican. My responses, and the issue I take with these attitudes, follows each numbered statement in italics. Enjoy.

1. You have to believe the AIDS virus is spread by a lack of federal funding.

Simple fallacies aren't considered dumb in an email like this, they're considered funny! Since AIDS is almost exclusively spread by lifestyle decisions, and federal funding is largely devoted toward education, there is an inverse correlation between funding and the spread of HIV. The hook in this is to emphasize the fallacy that one directly causes the other, which is ridiculous, and no one believes. The only reason to say it is to antagonize someone.

2. You have to believe that the same teacher who can't teach 4th graders how to read is somehow qualified to teach those same kids about sex.

Another shameless attempt to antagonize the opposing party by beating up on people who can't defend themselves - namely teachers - but who are most certainly not entirely complicit in the undereducation of 4th graders. Furthermore, how is sex "education" for 4th graders defined, here? If those penning these ridiculous sound bytes believe that simple facts about "the birds and the bees" should never be discussed to children of 4th-grade age, that is their prerogative. But such courses might not be completely inappropriate, and many of the people who fall under the pejorative label of "liberals" are not completely tasteless. They may even be opposed to introducing smut to 4th-graders. There is room for discussion and solutions, here. Insulting the people who are in the trenches trying to solve the problem accomplishes little.

3. You have to believe that guns in the hands of law-abiding Americans are more of a threat than U.S. nuclear weapons technology in the hands of Chinese communists.

This is just silly. Think fast... identify one Republican pet policy. Twist it a little, couch it in the right (i.e. wrong) context, and use it to contradict the spirit of another pet policy. This one took me less than five seconds... Ready? "In order to be a Republican, you have to believe that killing children in Iraq is a better use of taxpayer money than spending it on comprehensive health care to save babies in poverty in the United States." Do Republicans actually believe such tripe? Of course not. But when one juxtaposes the burgeoning costs of the war (now approaching trillions of dollars) with the tab ($35 billion expenditure increase) for the most recent health bill for expanding insurance coverage for low-income children, such an increasingly less hypothetical and more democratic-leaning person could accuse Republicans of being heartless baby-killers (which epithet seems to be bandied around rather liberally on both sides of the political aisle in our vitriolic political world). But the two policies (namely, the war in Iraq vs. health care, or gun control vs. nuclear proliferation) have very distant, tenuous connections at best. Why are we so eager to see hypocrisy in the other side? I get it, okay? Republicans like their guns. Democrats are all about gun control. But using tenuous connections and manipulation to belittle the inconsistencies in your opponents' favorite issues are not effective ways to effect change in those policies. (On a side note, if I were to choose between being a Republican "baby killer" or a Democratic "gun-controller," I'd take the latter.)

4. You have to believe that there was no art before Federal funding.

Do many democrats support the apportionment of public funds to the arts? Yep. Do many Republicans support the apportionment of public funds to faith-based initiatives? I believe so. Do many Americans find much of the "art" supported by their tax money distasteful? Indeed they do. Are some of the teachings of these state-supported religious programs distasteful to some Americans? No doubt. See where I'm going with this? A case of the pot calling the kettle black? Please write down the following reliable formula for block-headed political diatribes: "I don't identify with X party's ideologically-aligned interests. It offends my sensibilities for my tax dollars to be appropriated toward these activities that I find reprehensible. Y party, on the other hand, supports activities that I find to be moral and worthwhile pursuits. Without public support, such things would be drastically undersupplied. Anyone who feels otherwise is a nincompoop who can go pound sand, for all I care (please insert your own insult here)." It's enough to turn any rational human being into a libertarian.

5. You have to believe that global temperatures are less affected by cyclical, documented changes in the earth's climate and more affected by yuppies driving SUVs.

Cyclical? Documented? Yuppies? Are we content to again oversimplify an issue by reducing a complicated discussion into such tripe? No matter what side of the global warming controversy a person falls on, he will require far more insightful didactic powers to assess this issue. Such a person will have a hard time chalking recent trends up to "cyclical and documented" trends. Furthermore, the assessment of the opposition's stance as an accusation against yuppies is patently false on its surface. I realize that this statement could be an attempt at wit or humor. I am often guilty (at times on this very blogsite) of having a little bit of fun at someone else's expense. But if your fun reinforces misunderstanding and alienates people, you shouldn't be laughing.

(Side note diversion: Jeremy's formula for making fun: Be even-handed about mocking other people, i.e. never single anyone out. Except for yourself, whom you should (deservedly) mock more than anyone. People won't feel like you're picking on just them. You'll keep a healthy sense of perspective. Everyone wins. I'm still perfecting this method.)

6. You have to be against capital punishment (putting murderers to death) but support abortion (killing innocent unborn babies) on demand (federally funded of course.)

Capital punishment and abortion are extremely complicated issues. I'm going to pick on the abortion side of this oversimplification because I've had some ideas fomenting over the past few years. I am sick of people who insist in their political discussions that abortionists are baby-murderers. I know of almost no one who actually believes that an abortion is tantamount to murder (outside of the right-wing hospital bombing nut-jobs). The LDS Church's (my chosen religion... pick your own, here) position states that abortion can be an option in rare cases such as rape, incest, and when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Even when someone aborts a child outside of these conditions, the Church does not deal such individuals in the same manner that they would a murderer. I'm not saying that I don't fundamentally disagree with abortionists' stand on this issue. I find whimsical abortions undertaken to merely end an unwanted pregnancy to be more than just a reprehhensible travesty. But I also know that I would look differently at an acquaintance of mine who underwent such an abortion than I would view a confessed murderer. They're different. Significantly. So now the hard part: How to identify where my position differs in reality from that of the abortionists? I won't undertake such a task in this blog posting. But I also don't want to punt completely. Abortionists actually hold the legal high ground. A lot of the issue is tied up in the question of when life starts... the abortionists basiclly say that life doesn't start until a baby is physically born. Until then, they claim that the life fully belongs to the mother, and she can do what she wants with that life. The right-wing hospital bombers hold the other end of the legal high ground. If life indeed begins at conception, then a mother who aborts her fetus is essentially murdering. I hold to the unenviable position of falling somewhere in the middle. Those of my ilk must claim that life is somewhat ambiguous in its beginnings, that it is dependent on, yet to a degree independent of, her mother. Therefore, a mother makes a very serious decision when she determines to extinguish the physical embodiment of something that is, and yet is not yet an independent being. Finally, I think that we do the abortionists an injustice to claim that they all hold a cavalier attitude toward "abortions on demand." This is a policy term that refers to the right of a woman to have an abortion when she so chooses, as opposed to allowing a third party to make the decision for her. I believe that only the most callous of people would undergo an abortion without experiencing extreme emotional agony. I can only hope. Am I over-complicating things? At any rate, I feel that such an evaluation of this issue would be vastly preferable to resorting to vituperative "baby killer" sound bytes.

7. You have to believe that businesses create oppression and that governments and unions create prosperity.

Do you catch the sarcasm, too? Such subtlety. Such wit. How about this one: To be a good Republican, you have to believe that a critical press is unpatriotic and threatens national security, but government (including invasive regime change) and deficit spending create prosperity.

8. You have to believe that hunters don't care about nature but loony activists from Seattle do.

I know very little about hunters and loony Seattle activists. I know for certain that I owe a certain democrat by the name of William J. Clinton a huge "thank you". He implemented a midnight hour bill that turned a Delaware-sized chunk of land in Southern Utah into Escalante and Grand Staircase National Monument, one of the largest untouchable nature preserves in the country. Much to the dismay of local Republicans, this land is now unexploitable by energy companies. What a shame. But I take issue with those who say that preserving natural lands only serves recreational purposes. There's a priceless beauty in places like this that transcends recreation. We need these places. But I'm a little biased after a 3-day backpacking trip this past summer to Escalante when I didn't see another human being for the duration of my hike. But back to my point. Many of the Republicans aren't huge environmental fans, either. And they might have good reasons. But as you listen to them explain those reasons, invite them to listen to the responses of backcountry hikers, Bill Clinton, and even Seattle activists without making fun of them.

9. You have to believe that self-esteem is more important than actually doing something to earn it.

Um. I don't feel like honoring this comment with a response. Moving it on a bit.

10. You have to believe the NRA is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution.

Right. This is one of the only "If you're a good Democrat" statements that's true. And the funny part is, it's supposed to be insulting. But if you're a good Republican, you believe the inverse: The NRA is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution. What's funny here is that among Republicans, the ACLU might as well have been included in the Axis of Evil speech, while the NRA represents a bastion of American values. Democrats feel quite the reverse. So each statement will precipitate the following responses when sounded around democrats or republicans:
  • The NRA is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution:
    • Smug, condescending nods among republicans because democrats support such an insidious organization.
    • Sincere nods among democrats because they like the ACLU.
  • The NRA is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution:
    • Smug, condescending nods among democrats because republicans support such an insidious organization.
    • Sincere nods among republicans because they like the NRA.
And the point is, both groups feel that an organization's legitimacy is less dependent on its adherence to the constitution than it is on adherence to their personal belief structure. Which is fine. Just stop pretending that you care about the constitution.

11. You have to believe that taxes are too low but ATM fees are too high.

I don't get it. So I'm going to skip this one. We're politicizing ATM fees, now? Someone can feel free to explain it to me.

12. You have to believe that Margaret Sanger and Gloria Steinem are more important to American history than Thomas Jefferson, General Robert E.Lee or Thomas Edison.

See, this one loses me for a few reasons. First of all, I don't know of anyone who would make this claim. These individuals' contributions were different enough to be completely incommensurate. Furthermore, you lose me with the intimation that Robert E. Lee belongs on the short list of most influential Americans. Remember, he led the losing side of a Civil War that was fought at least partially to end the treatment of fellow human beings like animals. I can get in line with the fact that his contribution is eclipsed by that of women's rights activists. And I am a white male. Goodness.

13. You have to believe that standardized tests are racist but racial quotas are not.

I will agree that there is a disturbing double standard when it comes to race in some corners of the democratic party. But it's hardly universal. I hold to the hope that the impracticality of policies such as racial quotas and the elimination of standardized tests will win over the level-headed people. I wish Republicans would pay more attention to the people in the opposing party with more moderate and reasonable views than they do to extremists. And likewise for Demos regarding their Repub cohorts. Notice a pattern, here?

14. You have to believe that the only reason socialism hasn't worked anywhere it's been tried is because the right people haven't been in charge.

No comment. There are socialists disguised as democrats. There are fascists disguised as republicans. Pretend these people don't exist to marginalize their influence. It's better for everyone involved.

15. You have to believe conservatives telling the truth belong in jail but a liar and sex offender belongs in the White House.

I think we've established that calling people names is a little infantile. Many people would take issue with the statement that a certain 42nd president of these Untied States was an unambiguous "liar". Massaging the truth for his own purposes? I believe he was a master. The current Commander in Chief has proved adept at spinning facts in his own favor. Remember how reluctant Republicans were to probe Reagan about the Iran Contra Affair. Should such things be condoned? I wish they weren't. I also wish that we were willing to see the same shortcomings in our own party's candidates that are evident in the oppositions. I wish we held everyone to a higher standard. But I've wished for lots of things. I wished for a perfect GRE score today. My wishes are not batting a thousand.

16. You have to believe that homosexual parades should be constitutionally protected and manger scenes at Christmas should be illegal.

Again, an example of each side wanting "fair" (i.e. unfair) treatment for their own special issue, but yet reveal a striking unwillingness to extend the favor to those across the aisle. I admit I felt a degree of annoyance as I was driving to church last summer, and arrived 20 minutes late because participants in the Salt Lake City gay pride parade were blocking traffic, including dancing around my car. But I prefer to live in a country where such things are mere annoyances as opposed to other places where more barbaric attitudes toward people appear to be at least tacitly tolerated.

17. You have to believe that illegal Democratic party funding by the Chinese is somehow in the best interest of the U.S.


18. You have to believe that gasoline priced at $1.59 per gallon is too expensive, but accept bottled spring water at $1.09 per quart as reasonable.

Such an opinion in any party is news to me. Are we just making stuff up, now? Democrats are the only ones complaining about gasoline prices? They seem more amenable to higher prices than republicans as a general rule. And bottled water? Market forces, people.

19. You have to believe the purpose of government is to take money from people who earned it and spend it on people who did not earn it.

And the Demos respond that Republicans believe that the middle and lower class should carry the heavier tax burden in favor of further enriching the wealthy. Somewhere reasonable people should find a middle ground. Yet again notice the pattern of criticism in the above accusation. Note the counter-response. Find the issue that leads to painting the other side in such terms. In this example, perhaps we could discuss the efficiency of trickle-down economics relative to the reallocation of resources from the top down. Or you can paint the other guys' stance in ridiculous terms, and feel smugly clever about your refusal to understand people. Nice.

20. You have to believe in Democracy but demand only Democrat victories in elections.

Talk to both parties about gerrymandering congressional districts. When either party shows a willingness to give up such chicanery they'll have a leg to stand on when they discuss the democratic process and elections rigging. Until then, your words are purely self-serving.

21. You have to believe that people who disagree with you are stupid and backward, while believing people who agree with you are "progressive" and "enlightened."

It starts to sound the same, doesn't it? I don't think I even need to respond to this one. Pot. Kettle. Black. Sauce. Goose. Gander.

22. You have to believe that a "B" average economics major from Yale University with an MBA from Harvard Business School is too stupid to be President of the United States.

Who is anyone to argue with a "mandate" of 51 percent?

23. You have to believe that a "C" average history major from Harvard University, dropout from Vanderbilt Law School and failure at Vanderbilt Divinity School is brilliant and should be President of the United States.

The people have spoken. There's always 2008.

24. You are proud to have Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Bill Clinton in the Democratic Party.

I think they are. What republicans are you proud of? (Mr. Falwell supporters, please stand up). Quick, name someone whom you respect from the other party. Really? You can't think of anyone? That's more a indictment of you than it is of them. If this is the first place you heard this, please get out more.

25. You agreed with France's position on the war in Iraq until combat victory was achieved within three weeks.

Combat victory? Urrrrr.....

26. You have to believe that Hillary Clinton is really a lady.

Again, this is just mean spirited. Tedious. Not funny.

Issues, people! Issues!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

New Pictures

So I added some pictures from my trip to Southeast Asia, last summer. Check them out here or in the Pictures link to the right.