Monday, June 28, 1999

Week of 06/28/1999

Defending The Undefendable
The True Measure Of Freedom

- by David Matthews 2

You know, every time around the Fourth of July, I think for a moment about some of the things that makes America great. Why is it that people would still be willing to risk their lives to come here?

The first response, naturally, is money. The economy is strong, especially as we enter into this new electronic age. Jobs are plentiful if you know where to look and what you want to do. Opportunities aren’t as plentiful elsewhere.

But the second reason has to be freedom. The freedom to live your life the way you want to, without having the government tell you what to do. People from more repressed countries like China and the former Soviet Union talk about being able to enjoy things in America that they couldn’t elsewhere. They couldn’t enjoy them because their governments decided they couldn’t.

Freedom is a pretty dangerous concept. People yearning to be free have literally torn down walls build by governments. Just look at what happened to the Berlin Wall ten years ago.

However, freedom comes with a price. Vigilance is one price of freedom, and probably the one that you hear the most. But there is one other price that comes with freedom that you probably haven’t heard too much of.. tolerance.

Freedom brings more than one option for people. That’s something that people seem to forget. I have often said that freedom is not just limited to what is considered to be acceptable, but I wonder just how many people realize the implications of that.

The freedom of speech, to be able to speak your mind, has been attacked more times than any other freedom. The ability to speak your mind and express yourself has been challenged by people who say that saying anything that isn’t considered "appropriate" is evil. Liberals call it "hate speech." Conservatives call it "obscene." And both sides seem determined to define what is and is not considered "speech."

The freedom of religion also has a history of being attacked. Theocrats proclaim America to be a "Christian nation" while bemoaning their inability to put those symbols of their dominance into every aspect of society. They claim "persecution," while their supporters in Congress move to limit other religions from expressing themselves in a like manner. The ink wasn’t even dry on the Bill of Rights when states like Virginia began passing laws that outlawed Quakers from practicing their religions. Fast forward to today, when Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia began demanding that the armed forces no longer recognize the Wiccan religion.

In each case, the problem has been the same: a domineering group trying to dictate what should and should not be considered "acceptable."

And let’s face it, a lot of stuff that is under fire is considered to be controversial. It doesn’t matter if the subject involves sex, objectionable speech, or different religious practices.. a majority of the public don’t care for it. That’s why they’re so eager to see such things outlawed. It doesn’t change their lives, so why should they give a damn?

Let’s get brutally honest here.. there is NO freedom without the freedom to choose that which isn’t mainstream. Any government, even the most extremely tyrannical, can proclaim they have freedom for that which they deem to be "acceptable." But real freedom also means being able to choose something which you may object to.

That’s why I have some respect for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, even though I may object to some of the causes they support. They at least have a notion of what real freedom is and are willing to fight for it. Very few politicians, and even fewer special interest groups, can make that kind of a claim.

Here’s the real irony: In defending these ideas that aren’t considered "mainstream," these groups are also preserving that which IS considered to be "mainstream." Oh sure you may object to Playboy, but what about Sports Illustrated and their annual swimsuit edition? How about lingerie ads on TV and in the Sunday pullouts? Think those images would be safe? You may think that so-called "hate speech" is objectionable, but what is to stop those same people in government from then going after speech that simply questions the government? Don’t think it can’t happen? The very same arguments used to curb "objectionable" material can also be used to curb that which you and I may consider to be "mainstream."

So on this Fourth of July, amidst the fireworks and patriotic-sounding sound bites by our elected officials, I want you to think about the freedoms we enjoy, and reflect on what being free REALLY means. Or as Thomas Paine said it best: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it."

Monday, June 21, 1999

Week of 06/21/1999

The Failure of Conservatism…
…as a leading force for change.
- by David Matthews 2

OK people.. I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who have read my articles and have been saying to themselves "gee, this guy is a good conservative."

Once upon a time that might be true, but not now.

Once upon a time I was a supporter of the Reagan Revolution. Sold on the two-party lie that you were either a Democrat or Republican and nothing else mattered. Sold on the bit that liberalism was a failure. I believed those things were true.

Today, though, I’m a libertarian. I talk about the Big Lie with conviction. I still believe that liberalism was a failure, but now I also believe that conservatism is a failure as well.

If there is one group that I suppose I can thank (and you can blame) for my switch to libertarianism, it would have to be the religious crusaders. In the mid-1980’s they were running rampant across the country getting legislators to ban things. Ban this exhibit. Ban that book. Ban these theaters. My first thought was "What ever happened to the First Amendment?" The Moral Majority really loved the "freedom of religion" part, but they just never got the part about "freedom of speech." And guess what? Today’s theocrats still have a hard time with it.

Now fast forward a few more years to the Bush administration. The hot issue was abortion. The religious activists and pro-life groups were running roughshod with their protests. About that time I asked conservative columnist Robert Novak why conservatives still wanted government to tell people how to live their lives. I had thought being a conservative meant getting government "off our backs and out of our lives." That was, after all, the credo of the Reagan Revolution. His response to me was something I won’t forget. He said that conservatism is all about "going back to what has worked before."

"Going back to what has worked before."

Let’s think about that for a minute. We are approaching a new era not only in technology but in society in general. We are entering into concepts that have never been experienced before; issues that weren’t even dreamed of twenty years ago. How can we go back to what has worked before when we’re dealing with stuff that wasn’t around before? It’s sort of like trying to fix a stealth jet fighter using specifications from the Spitfire fighter planes of World War II. Sure you might get some of the general items right, but when you get into the details such as the engine and the electronics you’d be horribly lost.

The same applies with conservatism. For instance, the traditional conservative philosophy about work is that the harder you work and the more diligent you are in your work and sacrifice all for that work, you’ll get to keep your job. But how many of us have worked our fingers to the bone, have sacrificed everything - happiness, family, friends - just for the job, only to be laid off? How many people, after being laid off, haven’t been able to get a job that will support their families? How many of us have had to change jobs five, six, even ten times in the past decade? Such situations - unheard of even ten years ago - are incompatible with conservative philosophy.

Then there’s another question about "going back to what has worked before." Go back to when? How far should we "go back" to? Ten years? The Reagan Revolution? When junk bonds and corporate mergers ran rampant? When the only ministers making headlines were disgraced ministers? Tempting, even today, but many conservatives would still shudder.

Twenty years? When America was a "paper tiger?" The decade of free love, disco, Watergate, and trying to forget about Vietnam? Definitely not for a conservative!

How about thirty years? The decade of the Beatles, Vietnam protests, assassinated national leaders, free love and free drugs? No, the conservatives would rather we forget those years.

How about we go back fifty years? World War II. No, definitely not a time to go back to.

How about sixty years? The 1930’s. The Great Depression. Too depressing for too many people.

How about the 1920’s? The age of flappers, declining morals, Prohibition Wars, and Al Capone. The economy was just like it is today.. only it crashed miserably in 1929.

Too far, you say? How about forty years? The 1950’s..

Ah, there’s the catch! The era many conservatives say were great years. Mind you, we’re not talking about the late 1950’s, the era of the civil rights movements, "Elvis the Pelvis," Playboy magazine, and rock-and-roll. We’re talking about the early to middle 1950’s - the era of McCarthyism, fallout shelters, the Cold War, the Korean War, "duck and cover" exercises, and, most particularly, the last time Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. These are the days conservatives want to "go back" to.

Well I know there are plenty of conservatives that right now are itching to E-mail me to say "WHOA! We don’t want to get America back to the 1950’s - we just want to get back to that level of contentment that existed." Well, who doesn’t? But were those days really as contented as we like to think they were? How many of us back then were eyeing our neighbor to make sure they weren’t a communist? How many of us back then were afraid that the sudden flash at night was a nuclear explosion and not the headlights of an oncoming truck? Sure we may not have had to worry about crime then as we do now, but did that mean we didn’t have to worry about crime at all? We like to think the times were simpler back then, but once we take off the rose-colored glasses and really remember what the times were, we don’t want to really get back to those days.

I’m not trying to bash every conservative. There are a majority of people who look at the future and are scared, and I don’t blame them. I’ve looked at the trends we are turning towards and I sometimes ask myself if I have a place in that future. Unfortunately for me I don’t have the rose-colored past I can turn to and say those were simpler days and wish I could return to them. Life WASN’T simpler for me when I was younger, it only seemed that way compared to some of today’s aggravations.

And being a conservative is not just an American concept. There are scores of Italians who have said they may not have liked how Benito Mussolini ran their country during World War II, but at least he made the trains run on time. There are people today, after only a few years of freedom in Russia, that want to go back to life under the old Soviet Union, because at least that was stability. And how do you think the Ayatollah Kholmeini was able to sway the people of Iran to overthrow the Shah and bring about literally a conversion from progressive Iran to a die-hard theocratic country? By playing to their traditional values and beliefs and wanting to go back to the old days. Guess what folks - they’re conservatives too. You may not like it, but it’s true.

There is something else that is lost when we look towards conservatives for leadership - namely progress. Our ability to advance beyond our current situation. That cannot happen when our leadership is looking backwards, towards regression. 200 years ago the United States was founded from a belief that all men were created equal. Such a concept didn’t exist anywhere else in the world! Conservatives of that time weren’t looking for forge a new country based on such a belief - they were asking to return to British domain. They saw what would be known as the American Revolution to be a pointless struggle. Conservatives, by definition, abhor untested ideas and actions, the very building blocks of innovation and invention.

And before we close out this argument, let’s go back to that Reagan Revolution credo about "getting government off our backs and out of our lives." Conservatives, even to this day, talk about things like "less government" and "more personal freedom." Problem being, conservatives have been for anything BUT less government and more personal freedom.

Conservatives along the lines of French post-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre have instead talked about establishing order at all costs. To quote from Maistre: "We start with the supposition that the master exists and that we must serve him absolutely." One can easily substitute the word "Lord" for "master" and you get a quote worthy of the Christian Coalition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Georgia’s Congressman Bob Barr even quotes from de Maistre. Even conservatives with the caliber of England’s Edmund Burke have a rigid adherence to government control instead of individual freedom. If anything, conservatives have traditionally adhered to a more socialistic standard of life than liberals. So much for the myth of "more personal freedom."

Oh, conservatives can claim to support "less government," but only as long as it’s not a conservative government. Anything outside of that is just shop talk by political spin doctors.

Let’s get brutally honest here.. history is meant to be learned, not repeated, and certainly not relived. And that’s not to say that there is no room in society for conservatives. On the contrary, they play an important role as the brakes to a progressive movement that at times can go out of control. They remind us about some of the little things that we may forget from time to time. But just as we don’t expect to drive our cars on nothing but brakes, so too must we try not to rely on conservatives to "lead" us into progress, because by their own definition they cannot bring progress, only regress.

Monday, June 14, 1999

Week of 06/14/1999

The Fallacy Of Symbolism Over Substance
- by David Matthews 2

A guy showed up at the checkout counter of a corner grocery store with an armful of goodies. He patiently waited for the cashier to ring up each and every item.

"That’ll be $9.95," the cashier said.

The guy reached into his pocket and pulled out a Polaroid picture, and put it on the counter. The cashier looked at it.

"What the hell is this for?" the cashier asked.

"That’s for the groceries," the guy said with a smile. "You can keep the change."

The cashier looked down at the snapshot, then looked around to make sure some gag film crew wasn’t taping the bizarre scene.

"Listen buddy," the cashier said, obviously not amused, "we deal with MONEY, not pictures."

"Oh but that IS money," the guy insisted as he pointed at the picture. "Look closely, you’ll see it."

"I already saw it," as he flipped the picture back at the guy. "And I tell ya, we deal with money. M-O-N-E-Y. Money. Not pictures!"

"Oh, but that is as good as money," the guy insisted. "Now are you going to finish ringing that up or what?"

The cashier got flustered, so he asked for the manager to come up front to deal with this obvious wacko. But instead of confronting the guy, the manager simply whispered something into the ear of the cashier, then started to lead the guy towards the door.

"I’m sorry about that," the manager said apologetically. "He’s sort of new to this. He’ll be finished ringing up your purchases in a second."

Seconds later, the cashier returned with a shopping bag to give to the guy. The bag was really light, so he peered inside and found nothing but snapshots.

"What the hell..?" the guy exclaimed.

"I’m sorry, did we miss an item?" the manager asked.

The guy pulled out snapshots of each and every item he intended to purchase. He turned to face the manager, who had already returned to the counter to grab the bag containing the real items.

"And when you come back with the REAL ten dollar bill you took this picture of," said the manager as he waived the original photo with his other hand, "then we’ll give you your real groceries!"

As absurd as you may think that above story is, it does get to the core of one of the hidden problems we face in America.. placing symbolism over substance.

This week, Americans celebrate Flag Day, a day when we are to remember the creation of the American flag. Old Glory. The Stars And Stripes. A day that is just chock full of symbolism. Patriotic messages about how great America is, how rich in heritage and tradition.. military veterans talk with reverent pride about how they served their country to protect that flag, and how their friends died for that flag… No doubt President Clinton himself will make some kind of pseudo-patriotic speech about "preserving democracy and the American way of life," and how we should all be thankful that an old maid by the name of Betsy Ross fashioned a symbol for America.

And yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that Old Glory will be truly desecrated repeatedly between now and July 4th.

Not by protesters, mind you. But rather by individuals who would say what they are doing is to "preserve" the flag.

Every year for well over a decade now, politicians have decided that this period of time between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July would be to change the US Constitution to allow Congress to outlaw the physical desecration of the American flag. Politicians and moralists believe that the flag is SO powerful a symbol for everything America stands for that they would place its position as a symbol above the very freedoms it represents.

To hammer home this belief that a symbol is more important than its meaning, politicians are eager to haul out veterans groups and former prisoners of foreign wars in front a camera to tell them how they and their brethren endured endless torment for their devotion to that flag, compelling them to recall those instances of torment, convinced in their belief that everything would be worth it if the flag was respected far above the principles that it sustains.

Now let’s get brutally honest here.. this, too, is a form of desecration, but at a more insidious level than some passionate protester with a lighter. The protester with a lighter can destroy a flag, but they can never destroy what that flag stands for. Even if every flag in America were to suddenly and spontaneously combust, what those flags represented would not be affected. That particular indignity is left to our elected officials when they decide that what the flag of the United States represents is not as important than the piece of intricately woven cloth itself. Worse yet, it is done in the name of "preserving" the very symbol it desecrates.

The problem of symbolism over substance is not a new issue. Guys like Rush Limbaugh have been talking about it for years now. But Limbaugh only emphasizes the liberal side of this problem, while quietly allowing the conservative side to continue uncontested. Unfortunately, this problem goes beyond the outdated 1-dimensional political spectrum.

Moralists - be they liberal, conservative, theocratic, or authoritarian - live for symbolism. They believe that their vision of the world is how the way things not just should be, but must be. That is what draws them to politics, an intellectual institution that deals with a lot of symbolism, but also with a lot of real power to force other people to do their bidding. They have a need.. some would say an obsession.. to force the world around them to conform to their ideals.

But there is an inherent flaw in using legislation to change society.. it is a cosmetic change at best.

In 1919, anti-liquor moralists got legislators to pass the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. This was the Volstead Act, which outlawed liquor in America. It began 13 years of Prohibition that moralists insisted would make the country safer and more secure from the evils of the world.

Did it work? No it didn’t.

Matter of fact, it created even more problems. Now illegal, many citizens resorted to hidden speakeasies. Liquor was disguised as tea or soda or even medication. And if it wasn’t manufactured at home, it was either made or imported into the country by the more seedy entrepreneurs like Dutch Schultz, Solly Weissman, and Al Capone. Organized crime crept further into society. Alcoholism went from being a societal problem to being a hidden problem, since admitting to it now made one a criminal.

So thirteen years after the law that was supposed to change America for the better was passed, Americans did the right thing and repealed it with the Twenty-First Amendment. The law that Senator Andrew Volstead said could never be repealed, in fact, was repealed by the outrage of the American people.

Prohibition was sold on images and illusions. It was sold on the false promise that if the law was passed, everything would be right in the world. But even today, temperance moralists cling to that impossible fantasy, that obsessive delusion that all the problems of the world would be cured if only we were to get rid of the demon rum.

Placing symbolism over substance is a common theme for many of the so-called "family issues" in America. It doesn’t matter if it is about sex, alcohol, violence, drugs, guns, music, or the Internet. Moralists contend that everything in the world would be okay if the legislators would just pass a law.

It doesn’t matter, the moralists say, if the law is unenforceable. Just pass the law. It doesn’t matter if it is in direct opposition to everything the founding fathers wanted. Just pass the law. It doesn’t matter if the ultimate costs of such a law would do far more harm than good. Just pass the damn law and everything will be okay!

Those few legislators who do support freedom find it difficult to either support or defend that which the moralists have so publicly vilified. Who dares to speak for free speech if that speech is not considered mainstream? Who dares to support a manner of expression that the media has proclaimed to be improper? Who dares to support an adult to willingly engaging in behavior that the moralists deem to be offensive?

Ultimately, though, placing symbolism over substance is an insidious means of destroying the very symbol itself. What does free speech mean if only mainstream speech is allowed to be expressed? What does the freedom to choose mean if you’re only allowed one option? What does a US Flag mean if the very freedom it was created for is slowly and deliberately destroyed? Nothing. It would be an empty symbol.

A symbol is nothing more than the representation of something far greater than itself. Once we begin to place that symbol on a level higher than what it represents, that symbol loses its very meaning. When that happens, then much like our fictional shopper at the start of this article, we had might as well start paying with symbols of our currency instead of the real thing.

Monday, June 7, 1999

Week of 06/07/1999

Is The Party Over?
The Two Political Parties Have Lost Their Distinct Ideologies
- by David Matthews 2

Quick! Tell me what is the difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties!

Come on… time is wasting.

The Democrats are symbolized by a braying jackass, while the Republicans are symbolized by a fat, bloated elephant? That’s one! What else?

What? The Democrats are for civil rights? Oh really? You mean civil rights like free speech, right? Oh, you meant minority-based quotas and rampant political correctness. I see.

What? The Republicans are for less government? Oh really? How many government agencies have the Republicans shut down? How many laws have been repealed because of the GOP? I haven’t heard of too many, have you? Certainly not recently, when the GOP has had full control of the Congress. Change some regulations, perhaps, and re-write some laws, but in so far as to remove laws and shut down government regulatory bodies? Hasn’t happened yet. Matter of fact, if anything, the GOP has been for MORE laws, and thus MORE government into the lives of ordinary citizens.

Less taxes? Did someone say one of those two parties was for LESS TAXES?? Guess you haven’t looked at your phone bill lately. A sneaky little tax was introduced that would give the FCC more money supposedly to wire schools and libraries to the Internet. You probably don’t see it because Congress and the White House get so upset when the phone companies list that charge on your phone bill. Well, anytime you hear the FCC talk about wanting more money, guess where that will come out of? That’s right, your phone bill! And guess who wrote that little tax in? You guess it, BOTH the Democrats and the Republicans!

Come to think of it, there’s not really too much that separates the Democrats from the Republicans, except for the fact that one is symbolized by a braying jackass and the other is symbolized by a fat, bloated elephant.

Let’s get brutally honest here.. both the Democrat and Republican parties have long since suffered from an identity crisis. Where once the two juggernauts had clearly defined platforms that separated which party was which, nowadays the two have become such a hodgepodge of contradiction and hypocrisy that even with a program its hard to tell which is the jackass and which is the elephant.

The best example of this can be seen in the recent attempts by Congress to institute tough new gun control regulations. The GOP was long since believed to be "bought and paid for" by the gun lobbyists. But in the wake of two school shootings a month apart from each other, politicians from both parties suddenly found gun control much like a death row inmate suddenly finds religion. Suddenly, the party that was supposedly the epitome of the Second Amendment finds itself preaching the joys of gun control.

Needless to say, the sudden lack of a GOP identity does not sit well with many of the party’s die-hard conservatives, who are now speaking of possibly forming their own independent party.

But if the Republican party loyalists are frustrated by the party’s lack of a solid identity, they at least have it easier than their counterparts. The Democratic Party has almost no identity whatsoever. Their mission is simple - hold the line. Keep the welfare system as is. Keep Medicare and Medicaid as is. Keep Social Security as problematic as possible. Keep the payments coming. Keep the programs going. The party that used to be known for shaking up the system is now suffering from the political equivalent of arthritis, if not rigor mortis. Instead of a platform, the Democrats have been putting all of their eggs into the camp of Bill and Hillary Clinton, letting them and the pollsters dictate political policy.

This lack of a party identity has given the politician on both sides of the political isle the leeway to be flexible in their own positions instead of having to "tow the party line." Republican politicians, for instance, can be "pro-choice" on abortion, even through the party’s platform has traditionally been against abortion.

It also gives the politicians the ability to "flip-flop" from one party to the other, thus preserving their position of political power in addition to their seniority. Georgia’s representative to the US House, Nathan Deal, is the best example of this kind of party disloyalty. Deal had just won re-election in 1994 when his party, the Democrats, lost control of the House. He knew that whatever political position as a Democrat would be gone under the young Turks of the GOP. So days after he won the election as a Democrat, he resigned from that party and signed up with the GOP.

This blurring of the political distinctiveness between the two parties has also contributed to America’s voter apathy. Who can the average voter believe when candidates from both dominant political parties sound exactly the same?

If anything, the lack of any solid party identity between the Democrats and the Republicans has done well to serve upstart third party groups like the Libertarians and the Reform Party. Minnesota’s governor, Reform Party’s Jesse Ventura, can credit the lack of identity between these two dinosaur parties as one of the factors for his surprise election, along with name recognition.

But if the two dinosaurs called the Democrats and Republicans are dying in terms of ideology, it is a brain death only. The lifeblood that keeps these two parties going - the campaign funds - has showed no signs of slowing. Sure, whichever party is in power gets the lion’s share of contributions from the special interest groups, but even the fiscally weaker of the two sides still amass far more money to spend than any current third party to date.

And that, perhaps, is the only real reason why these two parties have continued for so long. Their ability to collect large sums of "soft money" for their politicians has been a potent political weapon to shut out serious competition from independents and third parties. This money used to come with a price tag - namely adhering to the party’s ideology. That has changed, and instead of party loyalists, both sides are filled with political mercenaries whose loyalties are only to themselves and the power they gain.

Oh, there are still old party diehards, and they still talk about party loyalties and how their particular party used to stand for something. But right now they are putting their faith in not party ideology, but rather in candidates like Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush. The Governor’s stance against what is supposed to be the party’s platform has yet to be measured. Gore, on the other hand, has shown he can morph into whatever demographic he needs to appeal to - a true political mercenary second only to his boss, Bill Clinton. The loyalists have, in fact, only solidified their own fears.

Maybe this is how dominant political parties are supposed to die out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Hopefully the 21st century will be the time for the American people to turn out the light on these two parties. Their days in the sun have long since passed.