Monday, June 24, 2013

Week of 06/24/2013

End the Info Hypocrisy Now!
– by David Matthews 2

I hate hypocrisy.  I really do.

Yeah, I’m guilty of it at times.  I’m only human.  I’m not going to try to claim that I’ve never been a hypocrite because that’s when someone will dig up something I’ve said or done in the past.  We’re pretty good at spotting the hypocrisy in others even though we have a hard time recognizing it in ourselves… and that, in and of itself, is hypocritical.

But what’s worse is when we institutionalize that hypocrisy!  When the hypocrisy is just so entrenched that it becomes policy or it becomes a law that we just can’t agree with but we also just cannot end.

Our outdated and freedom-hating blue laws are the perfect example of this.  Laws that forbid certain activity even within the confines of your own private home.  Laws that most of us agree that have no place whatsoever in a free society and most of us would probably be guilty of breaking on a regular basis, and yet we don’t have the courage to own up to that and get rid of these laws.  And the religious groups that benefit through those kinds of laws know that our hypocrisy is so overwhelming on this subject that they don’t have to ever worry about them being repealed.

Well we are dealing with a new piece of institutionalized hypocrisy.  One that I’ve talked about for several years and one that I know some newspaper editorial have touched on slightly, while the air-fluffed ego-driven media mildly tip-toed around it.  This piece of institutionalized hypocrisy deals with information.

Point One: We have the “revelation” that the Internal Revenue Service has been engaging in selective scrutiny for certain social and political groups.  Be it Planned Parenthood or the various so-called “Tea Party” groups, the IRS has been the convenient political pitbull.

Point Two: We have the “revelation” that the National Security Agency has this security program that spies on our phone calls, despite assurances to the contrary that they’re not spying “on us”.  It appears that the NSA contracts out to a company that then grabs all of the details of our communications and then sends the “relevant parts” to them, but there’s no word what the contractor does with the rest of that information.

Point Three: Our federal government says that they have every right to access our email and private online conversations as long as they exist on a server somewhere that is not on our computers.  No FISA Court involved; no warrants needed.  They don’t even need to say “national security, bitches.”  If it’s out there instead of just on our own computers, our government claims they have a right to access it, period.  That sort of puts a crimp on the whole “put it on the cloud” campaign, huh?

Before we go any further, let’s get a few things out of the way.

First, when we say “intelligence” or “data”, we’re talking about information.  Everything about who you are and what you do and what you say and where you go and who you know and what you buy are all information.

And second, these “revelations” are really neither shocking nor are they new.  These are things that we’ve known were going on, in some cases, for over a decade.  The same groups that had no qualms about these things going on under President George W. Bush’s watch are now petrified that the very same things are still going on under President Barack Obama’s watch.  The same scope; the same justifications; the same “national security, bitches” attitude; and even the same promises to the contrary that “we’re really not spying on you, only the bad guys”.  The only real difference is that one president was a lily-white Texas GOP redneck and the other is an African-American Democrat home-boy from Illinois.  Other than that, it’s just same snoop, different day.

That in and of itself is a pretty decent hypocrisy to rant about, but that isn’t even the big one!  That’s just the tip of the hypocrisy iceberg.

True, I could rant about just that, and I initially got into this article planning on doing that.  I was ready to lambaste the GOP and the conservatives and neo-conservatives for their political hypocrisy over this, since they were the ones that used the “national security, bitches” speech ten years ago.  They were the ones that stood behind then-Attorney General John Ashcroft when he said in 2001, and I quote: "To those who scare peace loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends."  And here they are today crying foul when Obama’s supporters say the very same thing. 

So, yes, I had every intention of putting them in the political stockade and pelt them with blogger-eggs.

But as I looked more and more into the subject itself, I couldn’t just leave it at their doorstep.  I couldn’t because it’s not really their hypocrisy that is at the root of the problem.

It’s really ours.

Let’s get brutally honest here… the real hypocrisy when it comes to information-collecting and information-utilizing is all ours, and it is long-past time that we not only own up to it, but that we kill it once and for all.

The best way to show the real institutionalized hypocrisy is to turn to television.

You know that “crime drama” show you like?  Doesn’t matter which channel it’s on because they all pretty much do this.  There’s a scene in all of these shows where the investigators – be they “federal agents” or “police experts” – decide to look at a particular suspect, and they type up that person’s name into a computer and – Boom! – there is that person’s whole life right there on the screen.  Who they are, where they came from, who they married, how many kids they have, what sort of work they did, what kind of criminal record they have or don’t have, their bank account information, their financial transactions, their credit card purchases, a record of their phone calls, the number of places they visit on the Internet.  Everything they need to determine whether or not that person should be a suspect is right there at their fingertips with just a few clicks of the keyboard.

Now I know some of you are ready to hit the emails with “But that’s just TV, dude!  It’s fictional!”  Yes, I know that it is!  I know that it’s fictional and designed to speed up the time it would normally take to dig through those kinds of records to get all of that information.

But good luck getting your fellow TV viewers to believe that!

What happens after every tragedy?  The first questions after “How many people died” and “Did they catch the people behind it” are “How could this have happened?” and “Why didn’t someone warn us about this beforehand?”  We asked those questions at every workplace shooting, at every school shooting, at every large-gathering shooting, every terrorist act, and especially the Boston Marathon bombing.

We actually expect police and federal agencies to have all of this information at their disposal like their TV counterparts do, and to not only have it with just a few taps on the keyboard, but to then be able to use that information to stop tragedies before they happen!  We expect them to somehow know when bad things are going to happen and then stop them.

And when our real-life officials say that they lack the capability for that, what do we do?  We give it to them!  We tell them they can look anywhere they want just as long as they can find the “bad guys” and stop them before they do something “bad”.

And they’re not the only ones we give our information to, is it?  Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, pharmacies, the local grocery store, the electronics store… they all want to know everything about us, don’t they?  Oh sure the stores give us some goodies like some discounts, but what about the others?  Too Big To Fail, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, Big Medical… seems like the only time we hear about what those guys do with all of our personal information is when they screw up and let crooks get their hands on it.

Then it happens… then we realize just how much information is out there about us, and who uses it, and why.  Then all of a sudden we get concerned about our privacy.  Then we get defensive and we wonder whether “Big Brother” is looking at us!

This is the hypocrisy we are all guilty of.  We gave these groups access to all of our information!  We gave Big Government and Big Corporate the keys to our own Pandora’s Boxes and somehow expected them to respect our privacy, never thinking that at any point they might consider us to be the very “bad guys” they’re supposed to look out for.

Think back to that crime drama TV program and the idea that they can dig up every single piece of information about you with just a matter of a few keystrokes.  How many people do they bring in for questioning on the basis of that information that ended up being completely innocent?  Now imagine if you were one of those people.  It makes you re-think that pompous line about “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”, doesn’t it?

Granted, we won’t be able to put the information genie back inside the bottle.  The time for that being even remotely possible has long since expired.  But we can remember about those limitations that we used to mock and remember that they’re not there to protect the guilty, but to protect the innocent from being treated as being guilty.

We need to own up to this hypocrisy before we can expect the politicians to own up to theirs.  If we can’t do that, then the politicians will continue to use it to play us.  They’ve done it before, and they will do it again.  It’s just a matter of how ignorant do we choose to be when it comes to our own information.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Week of 06/17/2013

On Syria, We’re Just Damned
– by David Matthews 2

I’m not a fan of the idea that America should be the “lone superpower” or that we should serve as the “World’s Policeman”.  Yes, we had that phase of evangelical Imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries along with the rest of the world at the time.  We had that self-righteous and self-serving doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” that pushed us to expand and conquer for some “greater good”, and unfortunately it’s not something we can get out of… thanks in no small part to our current political extremism.  Whether it was right or wrong, it happened and it is a part of America’s history, and I personally would rest a little easier when we are able to purge this country of that mindset, never mind of the policies that came from it.

It is that thinking that allowed us to be convinced that we “needed” to get involved in wars we really had no business in.  The Spanish-American War quickly comes to mind, as well as the Iraq War of 2003.  The Cold War itself was a continual military-industrial long-con with the occasional flare-up fueled by this “need to spread democracy”.  And then after the Cold War, we supposedly became the “go-to” country for every perceived injustice.  Every country having a problem with their leaders, every country struggling with poverty and famine and disaster all of a sudden became “America’s problem”.  We’re the “go-to” country, the “lone superpower”, the global policeman with the global response nightstick.

And that brings us right to our latest mess… Syria.

This past week, President Barack Obama finally stopped haggling about whether Syrian strongman Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against the rebel groups looking to unseat him and went along with the conclusions made by other nations that he did use them.  Now that he’s admitted that the supposed “Red Line” was crossed, Obama is sending small arms and ammunition to the rebel groups.

And now we’re in it, whether we wanted to be involved or not.

Unfortunately there was no way for America to not get involved, even without Obama’s “Red Line” threat.  We have built up this idea that we’re this all-mighty all-purpose crusading “Parens Patriae” nation, ready at a moment’s notice with warships and an unlimited bank account.  So it’s understandable that the rest of the world would then call us on it.

Let’s get brutally honest here… this isn’t just a case of “damned if we do and damned if we don’t”; we’re just damned, period.  There’s no other way to put it.

And we’re damned on so many levels on this subject.

First of all, once we get involved with the Syrian conflict, it becomes “America’s War”.  It’s no longer a “civil war”.  Assad’s supporters and America’s critics will declare this to be yet another example of “intrusive American Imperialism”.  It doesn’t matter how deeply we get involved in this, be it simply arms or sending American soldiers, it becomes “our” war.  Even now, our air-fluffed ego-driven media is declaring it “America’s New War”.

We saw this in Libya as well.  Our participation there was supposedly minimal, and yet the very act of providing support turned into “our war”.  Obama’s supporters even claimed credit for personally getting rid of Muammar Quadaffi in his re-election campaign!  We actually did far more in Panama to get rid of Manuel Noriega than we did in helping out in Libya.

And now that the Syrian conflict is “our” war, we are now obligated to make sure that it succeeds.  America’s chickenhawk politicians and their “experts” on K-Street and in the conservative media will demand nothing less than absolute victory, while at the same time criticizing Obama’s handling of “our new war” and the costs involved.  Yes, it’s about money, and the chickenhawks will tell you that you can’t win a war on the cheap, and yet, out of the other sides of their mouths, they will complain about every penny spent on it.

What this means is that we should expect a schizophrenic campaign for escalation that will make “The Three Faces of Eve” look like a nursery rhyme!  We can’t “afford” to lose now that we’re involved, but at the same time we can’t “afford” to send troops and armament, and yet we may have to in order to keep Assad from prevailing.

What makes this worse is that we’ve really missed the prime opportunity to offer support in this conflict.  This conflict initially came from the efforts of the movement known as Arab Spring.  Unfortunately for them, the Arab Spring movement was condemned according to the Talk Radio/Fox News script as being “Pro-Islamist”, even though they were pushing for secular changes even in places like Iran.  But, as always, the facts be damned, Talk Radio/Fox News script prevailed.  The Syrian rebels needed friends, and the con and neo-cons here in America weren’t going to help because of the Talk Radio/Fox News script, so they started getting help from anyone who will give it.

Guess what that means, cons and neo-cons?  It means that you forfeited any moral right to complain about the support that you previously refused to consider!  Next time stop reading from the Talk Radio/Fox News script and use that half-horsepower weed whacker you call a brain and you might make better decisions.

We’re in this conflict a little bit late – thanks in no small part to that Talk Radio/Fox News script – and now we have to deal with that and hope we don’t let those insurgents down.

But do you know what also doesn’t help?  When we end up backing the wrong horses to begin with.  We claim to be this supposed all-mighty self-righteous “Champions of Freedom and Liberty”, but then we turn around and back rulers that are the complete opposite of what we claim to support and then wash our hands of it by pompously claiming “it’s politics; you couldn’t begin to understand.” 

Oh I understand perfectly well… we have become hypocrites by policy.  My challenge to you is to do something about it.

It really is very simple: we can either live up to our own advertising when it comes to places like Syria and bear the costs both political and financial, or we end the ongoing justification that has us serving as the world’s policemen whether we want to or not.  One or the other, but we can’t have both.  That should be simple enough even for a Fox News viewer to comprehend.

Meanwhile, you better get your high-water sewer clothes and some noseplugs, because we’re going to be deep in this mess with Syria whether you like it or not, and it will reek.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Week of 06/10/2013

The Tale of Two (Horrible) Mechanics
– by David Matthews 2

One day my car ran over a nail and punctured one of the tires.  I had a spare, but as automakers have done in recent years, they gave me a horrible little temporary tire that will screw up my alignment the minute I start driving with it.  I knew I had to get the tire repaired as soon as possible.

Fortunately there was a service station just down the road, and they were eager to take a look at my tire.  Now this wasn’t one of those big-name franchises you may have heard about.  No, this was some long-time mom-and-pop operation that looked every bit its age.  If I had my choice, I would have tried to find a better place.  Unfortunately the next-nearest store was miles away, and by then my car alignment would be shot to hell because of that cheap donut some car manufacturer had the gall to call a spare.  So it gritted my teeth and handed them my keys and went to the very full waiting room with all the other drivers.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one that found those nails.

Now the first thing I noticed about this place is that there were two mechanics working there, but only one of them was working on all five cars that were in the bays.  However he didn’t really “work” as much as he complained about everything with the vehicles in the bay.  According to him, every automotive advancement made from the 1960’s on up was either “unnecessary” or else “just plain wrong”, and he had no qualms letting everyone know that.

His name, according to his nametag, was “Gus”.  Gus was in his fifties and wore faded red coveralls and a dark-red tee, both of which were full of all sorts of dirt and stains.  Even though he “worked” on those five cars in the bay, it seemed like he didn’t know what the hell he was doing.  Most of the cars there were like mine; they just needed a tire fixed and their alignment checked.  But Gus decided he would check more than just the tires and the alignment.  He also took it upon himself to check the brakes and the transmission and the oil and anything else with the vehicle. 

Then there was the other mechanic… an even older gentleman wearing faded blue coveralls with a blue tee.  His nametag said “Don”, and all Don did was to sit in a chair in the corner of the garage and watch Gus.  And Don seemed rather amused by this.  Every so often Don would comment about something Gus was doing and Gus would have to break away from his “work” and berate Don for being incompetent and told Don to just sit there and shut up and let him do all the “work”.

Of course the customers in the waiting room were getting angry just sitting there and watching this farce go on.  They can’t help but hear Gus and Don argue over and over about the cars and what was supposedly “wrong” with them.

While Gus was busy “working” on the furthest car in the shop, Don explained to me that he just eggs on Gus because Gus like to do everything, even if he doesn’t know what he is doing.  But he told me “not to worry”, because Gus would soon work himself into exhaustion, and then Don would supposedly “make everything right”.

Sure enough, after thirty minutes or so, Gus was working himself into a fluster.  He was forgetting things, dropping tools, and banging himself up.  Finally after sliding on a patch of oil and nearly falling on his rear, Gus excused himself to the breakroom.

Don took the cue to get up out of his chair and slowly make his way to the first car in the bay.  The folks in the waiting room were relieved that maybe they would get their cars fixed.

Unfortunately it turned out that Don was just as incompetent as Gus.  Instead of changing the tire on the first car, he started changing the oil; something that Gus already started to do but failed to finish.  He then moved to the second bay and started working on something.  He went down the shop, starting to do something on each vehicle, but not really doing what needed to be done.

The “hope” that existed in the waiting room was quickly dashed when Gus showed up thirty minutes later.

“What th’ heck do you think you’re doing, old man?” Gus bellowed as he came out from the breakroom.  “You know you’re not supposed to be working on those vehicles!  Git yer butt back into that chair so I can fix what’s wrong with these cars!  You’re holding up these customers!”

With that, Don retreated back to his chair and Gus spent his time undoing everything Don started to work on before resuming his own cavalcade of mechanical failure.

It was almost as though it was deliberate.  As if Gus and Don were simply padding things out to milk the customers for all the parts used, and of course all the “time and labor” expended while those cars were in the bays.

At this point, the customers in the waiting room started complaining.  For the customers who had cars already in the bays, there wasn’t much they could do.  The cars were missing parts and were already drained of vital fluids like the transmission and brake fluid.  Even if they insisted on taking their cars elsewhere, they still needed to have Gus make them capable of driving off the lot, and it didn’t look like he was going to do that anytime soon.

As those customers began wondering what they would have to do to fix things, the girl behind the counter gestured me over.

When I got there, she slid me the key to my car.

“Your car’s in the back lot,” she said softly.  “They wouldn’t be able to get to it until the afternoon anyway, but you weren’t supposed to know that.  The next station is five miles away.  Tell them Libby sent you.”

Now let’s get brutally honest here… if you saw this level of incompetence, wouldn’t you want to go elsewhere?

So I slipped Libby ten dollars as a tip, took my key, and headed out back to get my car.

As I started to pull away, Don egged Gus on about how they lost another customer, which Gus loudly blamed on Don and his “incompetence”.  I also saw some other customers from the waiting room slip away as well to follow my lead.

Sure enough, five miles away was another service station which was all-too eager to fix my flat tire, mount and balance it, and even threw in a free alignment because I told them “Libby sent me”.  I was out and on the road in an hour’s time.  That was far better, and cheaper, than waiting for Gus and Don to fix things.

As I continued on my journey I thought about all the people who were in that waiting room and held at the mercy of Gus and Don of “Government Garage”.  How could two obviously incompetent mechanics still have a business?  How could they even get customers if folks knew just how bad they were?

But then something else occurred to me.  Something that suddenly made everything fit right in place.

Someone had to put those nails in the road.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Week of 06/03/2013

Rule One: Do Not Lie
– by David Matthews 2

There seems to be an eternal pattern with scandals and crimes…

First there is the wrongdoing.  The criminal activity that may or may not harm people.  It could be something big, or it could be for something small.  A mix-up in paperwork; a mistake in judgment; negligence; a betrayal of trust; an abuse of power; or even out-and-out criminal activity.

And then, no matter if it is by a group, a company, an institution, or by an individual person, there comes the second wrongdoing.

They lie about it.

And this wrongdoing, it turns out, is far worse than the initial act itself.

President Bill Clinton was impeached by Congress, not supposedly for getting oral gratification from an intern in the Oval Office, but for lying under oath about it.  Richard Nixon was hounded into resignation over lies surrounding a botched burglary at the Watergate Hotel.  Governor Mark Sanford was hounded out of his job not because he cheated on his wife, but because he was caught lying about how he used taxpayer resources to cheat with his mistress on the other side of the hemisphere!  Congressman Anthony Weiner was hounded out of office after repeatedly lying about a photo of his genitals that got sent out.

Of course politicians aren’t the only ones that lie.  Big Business executives lie as masterful as any politician.  Sometimes even better!  Think of all of the corporate disasters that have bubbled up over the years where the executives lie through their teeth about the stability of their business.  Picture a Big Oil executive denying anything happened with a pipeline or a drilling rig as the media shows live video of explosions and an oil leak.

Everyone seems to lie when something bad happens.  It’s pretty much human nature.  If given the choice to be honest and take the pains of immediate punishment or to lie and hopefully delay or even avoid that punishment, we’ll instinctively lie.

And yet… while it’s considered unfathomable for someone to be caught lying to the government, it’s also allowed for government to lie to us.  Groups like FactCheck and PolitiFact and Snopes catch whoppers of lies made by politicians.  Politicians will commit out-and-out slander to degrade and demonize minority groups, the unemployed, people on government assistance, and do so with complete impunity.  Apparently the only time that is it not allowed for those in government to lie, is when they lie to another part of government.

Now I know this is going to be another one of those “talking to a brick wall” ideas, but someone still needs to say it, and maybe I’m the one that has to say it now.  Lying is supposed to be one of the things that is prohibited according to some stone tablets that religious extremists have a display-fetish over… you know, that whole bit about not bearing “false witness”.  Some of those self-righteous “devout Christians” have some serious explaining to do when it comes to that part of the tablet fetish.

So maybe we need to come up with a new “Golden Rule” to replace the one co-opted by the career politicians (namely “Those with the gold get to make the rules but don’t have to follow them”).  Certainly those in government that claim to want a better and more “ethical” body of government should be quick to adhere to a new set of standards, because let’s get brutally honest here… the current ones are proven to be abysmal failures.

Let’s keep this first one simple: Do not lie!

Simple, straightforward, and direct; do not lie!

I wish I could say that people couldn’t mess something that simple up, but we’re talking about the same segment of our population that have managed to mess up simple words in the Constitution like “make no law” and “shall not be infringed”.

But, seriously, if you’re a White House spokesman and you’re being asked whether anyone in the White House knew about the IRS cracking down on conservative and neo-conservative groups, then it’s better to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you on that” than to make a spot-answer of “no” and then find out that you were wrong.  I know that the media demands spot answers, but they’re in your house, not the other way around.  You can always un-invite them if they decide to push for a spot answer that you cannot back up. 

Keep in mind that the White House is a pretty big place, with all sorts of people working there.  You have staff members, chefs, security, interns, all of which may or may not know something.  So if you claim that “nobody in the White House knew this was going on” and the media pulls up some low-level cabinet official that says otherwise, then that makes you an automatic liar.  Do not lie if you cannot account for literally every single person in that building, because the media will find out.

You would think that given so many scandals that have plagued the White House over the past decades that they would realize this.

Speaking of which, I am honestly surprised that political challengers aren’t using these fact-checking groups more often to show just how frequently the career politicians lie.  When the Associated Press has to actually put a quota on the number of times certain politicians tell whoppers, then maybe that should be a red flag for the voters that said person doesn’t belong there.  Maybe the charge of “Contempt of Congress” would hold more weight if members of Congress themselves first adhered to the rule of “Do Not Lie”.

Of course the idea of a “Do Not Lie” rule will be harder to get through the private sector.  But then again, with the rise of social media and various review services out there already, we’ve seen some attempt to keep businesses honest.  Even the media has been caught in some of their falsehoods.  Just ask Dan Rather if you don’t believe me.

Yes, it seems like a “talking to a brick wall” idea, but then again, at one point the Hippocratic Oath was just an idea as well.  Perseverance and insistence over a long period of time made the idea of “Do No Harm” the rule instead of just a suggestion for the medical profession.  Maybe we can eventually do the same with the idea of “Do Not Lie”.