Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Doomed from the Start?

I sincerely hope not.

President-elect Obama has had more face time with the press than the actual President over the last two weeks. Bush set new records for most vacation time ever taken by a President. So now that we're basically just watching clock waiting for him to be on permanent vacation, he raises the bar on Lame Duckery. Honestly, does he know we're still paying his salary? It seems like between Bush abdicating his duties as President and Obama officially restrained from doing anything, we are a nation without a president.

It's just as well, as far as I'm concerned. A nation with no President at all is infinitely better than a nation with George W. Bush in charge. I've made no secret of my opinions here. I believe George W. Bush's presidency to be the worst thing to happen to our nation since the assassination of John Kennedy. Worse than 9/11, worse than Vietnam, worse than Watergate. Every day we inch towards the post-Bush era I breathe a little easier and become a little more optimistic about our nation's future.

So when it comes to President-Elect Obama, I cannot help but be optimistic. Bush lowered expectations across the board, and we not only tolerated it, we re-elected him. I have a theory that in years to come historians will refer to this as the Era of Mediocrity. We allowed ourselves to be led by a C-student, and we totally abandoned our quest for excellence as a nation. In doing so, we now have an economy that is circling the drain. We have a list of nations that hate us far outnumbering our allies. We have debt unimagined. We are, as a nation guilty of war crimes so multiple and egregious that we may never be the Good Guys again. We have collectively gone rogue from our own founding principles of liberty and freedom, let alone prosperity.

All Obama has to do to achieve greatness in the wake of the Bush Years is not screw up any worse. And screwing up worse than Bush did would require a lethal combination of creativity and psychosis. Obama, it seems, is only creative. Alas.

The thing is, Obama is getting roundly criticized by the Collective Right Wing Peanut Gallery (CRWPG), the same group that managed to stick its fingers in their ears for the past eight years and drown out any valid criticisms of Bush. Watching Fox News handle Bush's many blunders essentially boiled down to "LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU LA LA LA LA". Anyone not willing to swallow the Kool-Aid was deemed to be part of the liberal media conspiracy. Watching Fox News was like the cop waving people past a scene of carnage and assuring us "move along, people - nothing to see here".

These same "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" acolytes have uncorked their collective suspicion and turned it to a man who isn't even in charge yet. Believe me when I tell you there is already a website called - weeks before he's had a chance to do anything remotely impeachable. Now, I can appreciate cynicism and I've often confused pessimism with being realistic, but this is too much. The more Obama's people talk about hope, the less his opponents seem to have.

In terms of Obama's cabinet picks, he gets criticism in both fresh faces he chooses (inexperienced newbies bound to screw up with rookie mistakes) and the more experienced people he picks (corrupt insiders that prove Obama never really meant to bring change anyhow). When Obama chose L.A.'s mayor Villaraigosa to be a part of his economic advisory team, people who already didn't like the Mayor said that this was proof that Obama was out to destroy our nation's economy. I saw it as a validation of Villaraigosa's job as mayor.

The point: There's always two ways to look at things, and in the case of President-elect Obama, I say this: the guy isn't even running things yet. He hasn't signed one bill into law. He hasn't addressed Congress or the American People as their President. He is using the time after the election to get his act together so that once he take the Oath of Office he can get to work immediately. And perhaps, just perhaps, we ought to suspend criticism of him until he's actually done something as President.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bailing Out the Auto Industry Now?

When the government decided to give $700 billion to the failing bank industry, I kept quiet. I'm a big believer in keeping my mouth shut unless I have something valuable to contribute to a discussion. I know zero about banking and finance, and my little brain can scarcely comprehend how much money $700 billion actually is.

But like many of you, I drive. In L.A., you pretty much have to drive. So when I heard that Bailout 2: the Sequel had the American auto industry in mind, it got me to thinking. Like you, I've seen the news for the last few years. I've seen the reports of Ford, GM and Chrysler losing money, closing plants, and laying off their workers. Michael Moore started out with a documentary called "Roger and Me", which I recommend watching if you haven't already.

In the United States, people are more likely to be driving a Honda or a Toyota than a Ford or Chevy. Why is this? Simple. They are better values. We are capitalists, which means we don't believe in pissing hard-earned money away, even for patriotic reasons. We're not rich, and when we buy a car we take three basic things into consideration: initial cost (sticker price), gas mileage, and maintenance costs. Whichever car best suits our needs both in practical and financial terms is the one we typically choose. The final truth there is this: Honda's and Toyota's are comparably priced, get better gas mileage, and are less likely to break down that their American counterparts. My Honda has about 175,000 miles on it, and apart from some dings and dents, runs like a champ. It still gets about 25 miles per gallon, which is better than a lot of new cars. When the time comes to replace it, you can believe I will be looking at Honda's and Toyota's first.

Back in the early 1980's when Chrysler was on the ropes, Lee Iaccoca was made chairman. He pretty much rebuilt the company back into relevance. One of the ways he did this was with the "K Car". For those of you too young to remember the K Car, it was this boxy little sedan, nothing particularly gorgeous, but not ugly either: it looked typical for cars of that era. It ran about average, looked about average, and didn't stand out in any particular way except one: it got 41 miles per gallon highway. This was unheard of, at least for American cars. In those days, if you wanted a gas sipper, you bought Japanese. The car sold like crazy, to people eager to "buy American" but anxious to get a bargain at the pumps.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the Big Three has come out with a car since that gets 41 mpg highway. And that's a shame, because gas has only gotten more expensive. I've often wondered if there isn't some arrangement with the American automakers and the gas companies. But that's another paranoid rant for another day.

It should also be mentioned that Ford makes car models specifically for the European market that get considerably better gas mileage. The rationale here is that Europeans pay a lot more for their gasoline then Americans do, so for Ford to remain competitive they have to market cars to the Europeans that address this. That's sweet and all, but it raises two points in my mind: first, Americans are paying been paying much higher prices for gas lately. Secondly, whatever happened to root, root, root for the home team? I hate to tug at Ford's patriotic heartstrings, but why are they showing love to the Europeans by giving them better cars, and then asking our government to bail them out? Dude, go ask the EU, since you seem to give them better cars anyway.

The only thing that is going to save the American car makers is innovation. For too long, they have sold us those towering SUV's. Unsafe, way too big and wasteful with gas, they represent their owners here in America. We too are unsafe - we're now fighting "pre-emptive" wars in countries based on dubious (and what turned out to be bad) intelligence. We're way too big for our britches - we go around acting like the world's police and unofficial hall monitor, assured of our moral superiority as we waterboard hapless saps from third world countries. And we're gas hogs - we produce 3% of the world's petroleum while we consume 25%. Cars like the Humvee have come to symbolize America's simultaneous overblown sense of entitlement and need to assert itself in the faces of everyone else.

I propose that if the automakers here in America want to wet their beaks at the nation's tax coffers, that it come with a list of conditions that reflect our needs.
  • First off, don't bother making cars that get anything less than 25 miles per gallon. That eliminates a big chunk of the fleet, and I say good riddance. It's not the size of the vehicle that I find distasteful - it's what it represents - the notion that we assert our dominance through our vehicles, that we have an endless supply of gasoline, that we need not concern ourselves with pollution, leave that for the tree-huggers.
  • Second - hybrids. Here's a thought. If Americans don't want to drive a Prius because the shape of it is a little too much of a departure, fine. Let's do this - we'll make hybrid versions of all existing American car models. Hybrid Mustangs, hybrid Corvettes, hybrid Ford pickup trucks. We've already seen how Cadillac is coming out with a hybrid Escalade, and Chevrolet has a hybrid Malibu. Good for you, guys. Now follow it through to its conclusion.
  • Also, as a thank-you to the taxpayers that allowed their hard-earned money to bail you out, you will give standard ten-year warranties on all models sold in the States. We're not going to be nickel and dimed to death with crappy cars after we kept you afloat.
  • And finally, every gas-sipping EuroFord and EuroGM car currently tooling its way up and down the Autobahn will be made available to Americans within twelve months. Retrofitting all those shut-down plants in places like Flint Michigan will not only create jobs in the short run, but it will create a sustainable future for American carmakers. If it was innovation that made us #1 back in the day, it will be innovation that saves us.

Think of it this way: the Day of the Humvee is done. Now we enter the Day of the Economy Car. You already make them, and make them well, from what I hear. Now you're going to retrofit all those Yukon XL and Humvee assembly lines around the world to make cars we really need. We'll figure out how to haul our soccer practice gear around in smaller cars, and you'll realize the basics of the free market: if you make stuff people can't afford and don't need, you're going to go out of business. If you make cars we need and can afford, you'll never have to ask anyone for a handout again.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Gay is the New Left Handed

So roughly 10% of people are left-handed. Maybe less, depending on who you ask. And in centuries gone by, it was generally decided that left-handedness was a sign of evil. People quoted scripture to "prove" that God didn't approve of people eating and writing with their left hands. Therefore, good Christian parents and schoolteachers took it upon themselves to stifle any tendencies in their children towards left-handedness. This included tying their left arms to their sides or behind their back, to force them to use their right hands. In the 1600's, when witch trials were prevalent, lefties were often accused of witchcraft (and convicted, and executed) for no other reason than their dominant hand.

In the Bible, Matthew Chapter 25 sees Jesus telling about Judgement Day, when God separates the nations into two group: the "sheep", who go to heaven for their goodness, are gathered on God's right side. The "goats", those doomed to Hell, get to gather on God's left side. The implication was clear. Left=Devil, right=God. Therefore, lefties were evil.

Even today, there are subtle reminders in our languages of the generally negative view held on left-handedness. "Gauche", a term generally understood to mean tacky or inappropriate, is literally the French word for "left". Sinister also literally means left-handed. Say the right thing, but in the wrong way? That would be an example of a "left-handed compliment". Bad dancer? You must have... say it with me... two left feet.

And so it goes. It makes a certain amount of sense, sociologically speaking. Lefties are the minority. Anthropologically speaking, the majority in any society gangs up on the minority and demonizes them. Sometimes they use religion as an justification, sometimes they use more practical and mundane reasoning to ostracize these heretical creatures.

We saw examples of this "us versus them" mentality in race relations, as "minorities" were grouped together to mean anyone non-white. Ironically, if you group all those non-white people into one group, they actually make up the majority in many cases. But to outnumber a group, throughout history, is to claim not only superiority in numbers, but moral superiority as well. "Our way of life" gets threatened any time a minority group rises up and demands equal footing. We saw in the 1950's and 60's, as civil rights became an issue, white people (the majority) fret over their way of life being in jeopardy as the minority (non-whites) began to insist on losing their second-class status. White leaders railed against this threat to the status quo, warning all that to allow blacks and whites to intermingle unchecked would bring about the ruin of civilized society. Forty years later, in lieu of the aforementioned Apocalypse, it must be admitted that allowed equality among the races was not the undoing we were warned it would be.

In 1997 it was discovered once and for all that left-handedness is a genetic trait. They mapped it in DNA, and this is significant because it established once and for all that left-handedness was not some scheme cooked up by evil people. It was not a subtle sign to other evil doers. It was a predisposition - a tendency from birth to favor the left hand and foot. In lefties, there was a natural grace and skill demonstrated on the left side that the right could not match. Pretty much exactly the same as everyone else, only reversed.

Left-handedness was not contagious. It was not a flaw. It was not to be discouraged in children. It was not harmful to others. It didn't make one less religious, less honest, less wholesome. There was simply no downside to being left-handed, other than managing to successfully maneuver in a right-handed world.

I know, I know: so what, right? What does ANY of this have to do with the gay thing? We're not talking about something as innocuous as how you sign your name here, are we?

Are we?

Let me ask you this: if you have gay and lesbian friends, family or co-workers, what part of their lifestyle has been forced onto you? Have they made you watch them having sex? Probably not. What about lurid tales of their bedroom escapades - have they forced you to listen to those? I doubt it. Have you ever seen a homosexual passing out literature on the glories of sodomy at the local grade school? I think not. So if they haven't forced you to watch them actually practicing their homosexuality, they haven't forced you to listen to them describe it, and they haven't tried to indoctrinate your kids, how has their sexuality impacted you?

Simple answer: it hasn't. Other than the you knowing they're gay, you have nothing to go on. The "Gay Agenda", as far as I can tell, consists of much the same stuff the Straight Agenda does: Get up, go to work, pay your bills, spend time with friends and loved ones, try to be happy. Lather, rinse, repeat. I know they aren't planning world domination. They're way too outnumbered. And just to revisit the "gays around your kids" thing... did anyone NOT have a gay teacher at some point? Maybe they didn't announce it ("Attention class, I am a practicing homosexual, and if you'd like to know more, I have an array of colorful pamphlets to fill you in"), but you just knew. The stereotyped lesbian gym teacher, the sensitive and perhaps even effeminate male English teacher or drama coach... we all had some exposure to homosexuality in our childhoods. Before we became sexually aware ourselves, the fact that someone was gay was probably a non-issue. We didn't understand it, we didn't care. We heard things and people called "gay" by our classmates to indicate they were bad. By the time we actually understood what "gay" really meant, we had associated so much negativity with it, that it was hard to be objective when dealing with actual homosexuals - people who not only admitted being "gay" but seemed to be proud of it. Add to all that some Bible verses that make God seem displeased with gays, and you've got all the makings for a good old-fashioned torches and pitchforks mob.

And that's what we got with Proposition 8. Prop 8 amends the California State Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. No doubt the courts will chew this up and spit it out like so much bubble gum. It's a blatant attempt to single out the gays from having the right to marry. The opponents of gay marriage say that they're "defending" traditional marriage. I'm sorry, but you force me to call bullshit on this one. Traditional marriage? Does that mean I'm legally allowed to beat my wife now? Traditionally, that was the deal. What about divorce? In the traditional context of marriage, divorce was not just frowned upon, it was illegal. And yet there was no mention of abolishing divorce from the "traditional marriage" crowd.

Then they tried to scare us with the best possible weapon, and it worked: kids. If Prop 8 fails, and gay marriages continue, we were told, kids will be forced to learn about/accept/go to gay weddings. All your wholesome upbringing as parents will be undone. Teachers will be teaching your little Johnny and Mary all about the wonders of sodomy, complete with full color slide shows. All this is rubbish of course. But just like the makers of "Poltergeist" and "The Exorcist", the anti-gay marriage crowd knew that the quickest and easiest way to freak people out was to put some innocent kid in jeopardy. So they cooked up some fantasy scenario where your kid gets systematically corrupted, indoctrinated with "gay is good, gay is normal, gay is fine", until they run home from school and proudly announce "Mommy, Daddy, I'm GAY!" To the parent who feared such a scenario, I say relax: that won't happen until the second year of college.

So gays today are pretty much the lefties of a century ago: outcasts, demonized, a threat to your wholesome Christian world. I wonder, when we finally isolate the DNA nugget that determines sexual preference, will we then finally let it go? Or will we then seek out a new minority to demonize? I suspect the latter. But until then, we always have Massachusetts. Interesting to me, that Massachusetts was in many ways the birthplace of our nation's freedom. In Lexington and Concord, colonists took up arms against British soldiers - representatives of what was at the time the most powerful empire on the planet. These colonists had no military training. What they had was a belly full of being pushed around. In Boston Harbor, other colonists let it be known that they had had enough as well. Massachusetts has a history of taking a stand against tyranny, and it is fitting that this state, if no other, represents the vocal minority demanding that gay marriage be legal. I suspect that after a few years of gay marriages squeaking through, we will finally realize that married gay people in America is not the sign of its undoing, any more than desegregation was in the 1960's.

The majority throughout our history had threatened us with doom whenever the status quo is upset. Society, they would have us believe, is a house of cards, ready to collapse at a moment's notice. We must therefore tread carefully, loathe to upset the delicate balance. But from the abolition of slavery through women's suffrage, on through McCarthyism and the civil rights movement, we have seen our status quo adjust itself to society's revelations. We have, over the past two centuries, evolved from a nation where only white male land owners had a voice to one of remarkable equality. And while we are certainly not perfect, and while injustice still rears its ugly head, we have refined our understanding of what freedom really means.

There will be gay marriage. All that Prop 8 did was delay it. It is a temper tantrum thrown by those scared of change. Some people will never accept gay marriage, any more than they accept interracial marriage. But the laws of the land insist on freedom for all, and even if it takes a few more years. Massachusetts will serve as it has in the past, as a voice crying out for change in the wilderness. And as state after state takes up the battle cry, we will once again emerge from the cocoon of our own fear and ignorance to blossom into a more perfect union.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why Isn't There a Liberal Christian Left Wing?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not really a big fan of "ism's" and labeling. I think pigeon-holing people or beliefs overly simplifies them. I think stereotyping is a sign of lazy thinking. Show me the people who look beyond the superficial labels and delve into the heart of a matter, and I'll show you someone interesting. And for me to call someone or something "interesting" is a huge compliment. As you may have already gathered, I bore easily.

With that in mind, I was thinking about the conservative Christian right wing. They have been a part of our political landscape for almost thirty years. They've been very successful in organizing their ranks to vote in lockstep, and that voting bloc has wielded considerable influence in elections from the local city councils to the President. Ronald Reagan was perhaps the first to cash in on the benefits of sucking up to this group. Even years after his death they still sing his praises for bringing wholesome, moral, common-sense values back into American mainstream after the zany 60's and 70's.

As near as I can tell, the CCRW (Conservative Christian Right Wing) was against abortion, against gay rights, pro-gun, pro-military, pro-family etc. They were a big part of getting warning labels put on rock albums, warning parents of the explicit content. They were represented by groups such as the Moral Majority, headed by the late Jerry Falwell.

On this election day, we may be seeing the death of the CCRW. Here in California, we may once and for all legitimize gay marriage. That coupled with the election of a pro-choice President would signal that the majority of Christian Americans have decided to keep their religion where it belongs: in the church.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of people who live out their principles. If someone draws a moral line in their own life, it is refreshing to see them own it and live by their convictions. But when it comes to certain issues, the CCRW has exposed itself as a house of cards, built on lies.

Take the pro-family issue. I would assume this meant they're not very big on divorce. And yet statistically, evangelical Christians are the likeliest demographic to divorce - higher than Catholics, higher than atheists, higher than agnostics.

As to the gay thing, last year a major evangelical was outed as a closet homosexual after a gay escort who had done crystal meth with him exposed him. These things really don't help your cause, guys.

I could go on with examples, but instead of trashing the CCRW, I have a radial suggestion, one which would be not only easier to live by, but more consistent with the Scriptures:

Go liberal.

There are plenty of causes that are championed by the bleeding heart liberals which read like Jesus of Nazareth's day planner: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for the despised and afflicted, and befriending the outcasts in society. Read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and tell me - where were Jesus' priorities?
  • Jesus tended to the sick. A big part of his ministry wasn't even the miraculous feats like making the blind see and the lame walk, but that he took time out of his day whenever he could to care about the health of those around him. And in being charitable with his healing, and making sure even blind beggars got some of his valuable time, he got people interested in who he was as a man. He got people interested in the message. I submit to you that if Christians really wanted to shore up their numbers, if they really wanted to fill those pews, they would collectively demand affordable health care for all. In a Christian America, no one would be turned away from a chance to be healed.
  • Jesus fed the hungry. Sure he had showy miracles, but in the example of the feeding of the five thousand, he preached to them AFTER he fed them. This is smart - an audience with full bellies is less inclined to walk out on you. But more to the point, he understood that people have needs - like eating. And unless he was prepared to address that need, he could not reasonably expect them to care about his message. In America we have people who don't get enough to eat. We have enough food to feed the world, and yet the ones who need it the most get the least. We throw away more food every day in America that some nations eat. I believe that if the Christians in America really wanted to live up to Jesus' example, they'd make sure everyone had enough food. Then maybe some people who have been ambivalent about spirituality would show a little interest in Christianity.
  • Jesus refused to judge people, and associated with people of questionable reputations. In the story, people bring a woman to Jesus who apparently was caught in the act of adultery. Suspecting that Jesus was a soft touch and not in step with a vengeful God, they challenged him to judge her based on the law, which at the time called for her death by stoning. Jesus gave his permission to have her stoned, on the condition that the one in the crowd who was without sin themselves should throw the first stone. As expected, the crowd walked away, realizing that they were sinners as well, and therefore not in any position to judge. Jesus hung out with tax collectors (not a popular job, even in those days, and likely to pretty much crush your social standing). And as his popularity grew and doors were opened for him to associate with higher classes of people, he consistently chose to minister to the meek and oppressed. In America today, Christianity is more of a judgement factory, in elections exhorting people to decide to vote for a candidate they deem honorable. And how is this title of "honorable" attained? Look at Barack Obama, who associated with sinners like Bill Ayers. As such he wasn't honorable enough for the CCRW. I suspect that Jesus would have disagreed.

As liberals, Christians could not only focus more on ministering to the poor, the sick and hungry, but they could rally to the liberals' various environmental causes as well. God made the earth, right? And according to Genesis, he gave mankind dominion over the planet. So essentially we're responsible for it. I can't imagine how, with that in mind, any Christian wouldn't supposed legislation that offered to clean up the land, the water or the air. I can't imagine, for the life of me, why any decent Christian would stand by while their government offered anything less than excellent stewardship of the planet.

So there's my plan. Christians can still be involved with political affairs, and they can still act out their faith through supporting legislation that is consistent with the words and deeds of Jesus. But with a Democrat in the White House, they're going to have to adopt new pet causes to stay relevant. If I were a member of the evangelical Christian community, I'd keep my mouth shut about gays ruining marriage, at least until me and my fellow evangelicals managed to get a handle on our own divorce rates. If I were a member of the evangelical Christian community, I'd spend less time chanting "drill baby drill" and more time ensuring quality health care for all Americans.

You don't have to be able to lay hands on the sick and heal them to perform miracles. Abolish our current broken health care system, insurance companies be damned. Heal the sick and forget the paperwork. Get some of those millions of obese Americans to donate food they clearly don't need to those that do, even in other countries. That would be miraculous enough.