Archive for the 'Politics' Category

The dangers of teaching American exceptionalism

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

I believe that the United States is an exceptional country. Not only are we #1 in several key metrics like the world’s largest economy (for now), the largest military, and countries with manned landings on the Moon (#1 and only!), but we are also historically responsible for modern republican democracy itself. We, along with the subsequent French revolution, changed the course of history by pioneering a new form of government that had only ever been hinted at back during the classical era, and proved its superiority with our resounding success. Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of the United States on modern world history simply isn’t paying attention.

But I’m not here to brag on American exceptionalism, and god do I even hate that phrase. Outside of a historical context, even emphasizing it accomplishes little good. This is why I’m dismayed at a recent law proposed by Rep. Peter King that was passed in Oklahoma that bans Advanced Placement History classes due to quibbles over their curriculum for insufficiently whitewashing American history. It’s terrible for all the smart kids in Oklahoma that will not be able to take excellent classes and then get credit for them in college, but there’s something even worse at play.

You cannot teach a perverted version of history. You will be doomed to repeat past mistakes and atrocities if you do. The United States may be exceptional, but we also have a good share of blemishes as well, including slavery, lack of civil rights for non straight white land-owning men, our conquest and subjugation of the native population, and many others. We’re not worse than a lot of other countries in this regard, but we certainly aren’t better, and rejecting a curriculum because it has an even-tempered approach toward history instead of a rah-rah go-America boosting one is negligently short-sighted.

Everyone knows what happens when you spoil kids and tell them they can do no wrong: they turn into monsters with no ability to self-reflect and no compunction against committing evil. Similarly, and this is an issue very close to me personally, everyone knows what happens when you praise kids for being very smart, and emphasize the importance of innate intelligence over diligent study and hard work. So why should it come as a surprise to anyone that when you drill American exceptionalism into kids’ heads over and over again, they come out of it with the belief that America can do no wrong? It’s easy to minimize any historical wrongdoing when you fervently and uncritically know that your country is number one, because really, how bad can slavery be if we did it, and it was part of getting us to where we are now, on top?

We need a more measured sense of introspection than that. Not everything that we did in the history of our country to get to this point was necessary or justifiable. The point is to learn from those mistakes and make damn sure that they never happen again, an attitude which is impossible to adopt if you never learn about those past abuses at all, or are taught exceptional rationalization skills from a young age to paper them over. The bad parts in American history need to be especially emphasized, not ignored, so that particular importance is placed on avoiding repeats. It’s easy to justify any wrongdoing going forward if you don’t recognize those wrongdoings of the past and thus make no effort to be any better in the future.

It’s no accident that the people most fervently pushing a white-washed version of history are the same ones supporting our most egregious ongoing abuses and inequalities, including unjustifiable wars, torture of prisoners, discrimination against homosexuals, removal of the voting rights of black Americans, uncritical support of the police even in cases of extreme unnecessary force, encroachment by religion on secular matters of the state, support of draconian drug policies that lock up millions of Americans for non-violent drug offenses to no purpose, and an unwillingness to help the members of society that are less well-off even though doing so makes everyone better off in the long run. But if you study history, and see what these kinds of policies led to in the past, it’s much harder to support them in the present. Avoiding this is where the movement to teach (dare I say brainwash) American exceptionalism in schools has its ultimate roots. That is why I can never support it.

Right-wing terrorism

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Today, an anti-semitic terrorist attacked the Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C. (I’ve been there, and yes, one visit is enough for a lifetime). Last week, an anti-abortion terrorist assassinated a doctor.

Why is the media so afraid to use the word “terrorist” to accurately describe right-wingers engaged in the act of terrorism? Is it that whites can’t be terrorists? Only Arabs?

Until we call it what it actually is, we can’t address it properly.

And since right-wingers were so keen on using water-boarding against terrorists, do you think they’d mind if we tortured these home-grown right-wing terrorists?

The inauguration of Obama – you had to be there

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Today was a long yet exhilarating day. It started at around 7:00am when we woke up and boarded the Metro downtown to catch the inauguration. We had purple tickets allowing us onto the Capitol grounds, but alas, the purple line was mishandled horribly, and we didn’t actually get in. Frustration was running high in the crowd, but when noon came around, the mood quickly improved, and when the oath was said and the cannon fire commenced, a cry of jubilation emerged from the crowd. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t doing my part with that.

Up next was the inaugural speech, and luckily, my dad brought a portable RadioShack radio. An impromptu group of listeners surrounded us as Obama gave his inauguration speech, eager for any sort of live broadcast in the land-of-no-Jumbotrons. Our small huddled mass, and the others just like it around similar devices, was a microcosm of the Obama movement itself. We had people of all ages and colors: two white teen-aged girls, some middle-aged African-American women, an older ex-hippie couple, and others. At least of the listeners were crying at some point in the speech. After it was over, several people profusely thanked my dad for sharing the experience.

That’s the memory I’m always going to keep from this event. Yes, we didn’t get to use our tickets, but it was amazing all the same. I would not have had the same shared experience sitting at home watching it on the television. Afterward, we headed over to the parade route and stood in the freezing cold until Obama and Biden drove by. Then we departed, navigating the mess of a city completely swamped by its most massive event ever.

There was one particular point in Obama’s speech that really surprised and impressed me. When I heard it, I almost thought I had misheard it, and I looked at my dad for confirmation. He seemed genuinely surprised as well. Yet here it is in the transcript:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

How far we’ve come in these two short decades since George Bush Sr. uttered this infamous statement: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Now that’s change we non-believers can believe in.

Parody is not license to be racist

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Recently, some Republicans thought it would be a brilliant idea to distribute a CD to members of the Republican National Convention containing a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro”. The general response was about as predictable as the sunset, and rightly consisted of outright condemnation over such disgusting and overt racism. But get this: the excuse of the Republican who distributed the song was that it was a parody.

Really? A song sung to the same tune as the pop hit “Puff the Magic Dragon” is parody? Anyone with two neurons to rub together can figure that out. Yes, “Barack the Magic Negro” is parody. Racist parody. Racism and parody are not mutually exclusive, so asserting that it’s parody isn’t a defense against the actual charge. The rebuttal thus rings completely hollow. The idiot should’ve just apologized instead of offering this pathetic attempt at an excuse, thus digging the hole even deeper.

If the Republican Party wants to recover from the doldrums they’re currently languishing in, they might want to stop being openly racist. Most people don’t like that. Just saying.

The death of the Bradley Effect

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

The results of Tuesday’s election give us reason enough to declare the Bradley Effect as outdated, wrong, and finally, dead and buried. The “Bradley Effect”, named after black California 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, posits that a significant number of whites are secret racists, who will tell pollsters they’re willing to vote for a non-white candidate, but when they actually get into a ballot box, the lurking racism shines bubbles up and they’re unable to do so. Never mind that supposed instances of it occurring in the past are marred with bad polling; we couldn’t stop hearing about it during this past election. So I’m very thankful that it’s finally discredited once and for all.

The Bradley Effect is demeaning to everyone involved. It demeans whites because it asserts two negative things: that they are racists, and that they are ashamed racists who won’t admit it to anyone but an anonymous ballot. It is demeaning to non-whites because it asserts that there is some reason they should under-perform any other candidate solely on the basis of the saturation of their skin.

But the worst part of the Bradley Effect was that it enabled meta-racism: It allowed people who aren’t racist themselves to oppose candidacies of non-whites on the basis that others are racist and would never vote for said candidate. I heard this reasoning from a surprising number of Democrats in the early days of the Democratic primaries in reference to Barack Obama, but thankfully, they all got over it. And now that we have elected a non-white (well, non-half-white, anyway) to the highest position in the land, no one can possibly cite the Bradley Effect in good faith as a reasoning for not preferring a non-white candidate.

The next time anyone even so much as mentions the Bradley Effect, tell them to stop going on about discredited theories. Or, if you aren’t feeling quite so charitable, tell them to shut the eff up. The Bradley Effect belongs in the dustbin of history, next to trickle-down economics and National Socialism. This country will be a better place if I never so much as hear the phrase “Bradley Effect” even mentioned ever again. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.

Today is a momentous day

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Today is a momentous day.

I can finally truthfully say again that I am proud of my country.

It’s an incredible feeling.

Fixing ordering bias of U.S. presidential election candidates on Wikipedia

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Today, upon getting home from work, one of the first things I did was check the Main Page of the English Wikipedia. It always has interesting content on there, and today was no exception. For the first time ever, two articles were featured on the front page: those of John McCain and Barack Obama. Except there was one little niggling problem: John McCain was listed first. Granted, his last name does come first alphabetically … but still. This is the Internet. We don’t have the limitations of printed paper ballots; there’s no reason the candidates have to be displayed in a static order. And I happen to be an administrator on the English Wikipedia, so I can edit any page on the site, including the main page and the site-wide JavaScript. So I fixed the ordering, presumably much to the delight of all of the people who had been complaining about bias on the talk page.

I took some JavaScript that was previously used in the Wikimedia Foundation Board elections, where ordering of the several dozen candidates had proved to be a huge bias in previous elections, and added it to the English Wikipedia. Then I modified the main page slightly to use the JavaScript and, boom, the candidates now appear in a random order upon each page load. I figure if this solution was good enough for WMF Board elections then it ought to be good enough for the United States presidential election, right?

So if you go to the main page of Wikipedia now, you should see either Barack Obama or John McCain on top, with a 50% probability of each (if you’re not seeing this behavior, flush your browser’s cache). Considering how many people view Wikipedia each day, I like to think this will make some kind of difference.

Why the William Ayers “controversy” keeps failing to gain traction

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Pardon my dumb-foundedness, but I just don’t understand why the McCain/Palin campaign and other Republicans keep on pushing the “he associates with former terrorist William Ayers” attack line against Barack Obama. Okay, that’s not quite true; I understand why they’re pushing this line of attack — they’re out of any good ideas for America’s future, and it does work on their rather ignorant base — but what I don’t understand is how they think this line of attack will be successful in the greater scheme of bringing more undecided voters into the fold and win the election. Let’s look at the charge objectively, okay?

William Ayers committed his terrorist attacks when Obama was eight years old and living in Indonesia. Obama hadn’t even heard of him at that point, let alone supported his philosophies. They wouldn’t go on to meet for another twenty-seven years, by which point William Ayers had long since stopped being a terrorist and had become a respected university professor. The two met when they served on the board of a non-profit education-focused community group. And as a potentially mitigating factor in defense of Ayers, the US government wasn’t exactly on a hot streak during the Vietnam War; the Weather Underground has to be understood in the context of the larger anti-war movement that rose up to oppose it. Yes, the Weather Underground used tactics that are never acceptable — but so did the government at the time. No ones hands are clean in this.

The American public overall isn’t being persuaded by this line of attack. Calling Obama a terrorist sympathizer as an attempt to paint him as un-American (how McCarthyist!) is too sleazy for all but the most rabid conservative. It simply isn’t gaining any traction; when McCain started pushing this narrative, Obama started gaining in the polls. But the silliest part of this line of attack is that, if it actually held any merit, it could just as easily be used against me, to disqualify me from ever holding any elected office. What’s that? I’m connected with a former terrorist? You betcha!

I went to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, a notoriously liberal area. One of my best and most memorable teachers was my eleventh grade history teacher. She would frequently get distracted during lessons and start recounting stories of her anti-war activities during the Vietnam era, and we all loved her for it. We learned more from her than from any textbook. And her life story was amazing, leaving her with a wealth of personal stories that never left us bored: after her anti-war activism, she became a Catholic nun, then ended up leaving religion altogether, married a black man in a time when that was very uncommon and looked down upon, had a mixed-race child, ended up getting divorced, then ultimately became a teacher. We all respected her greatly because, unlike most other teachers, she treated us like adults and told us the unfiltered truth. At one point when she was telling us a story of how her, her husband, and their child were racially discriminated against, she and half the class were crying. But it was her activities during the Vietnam War that I’d like to focus on now.

My teacher was involved in a radical anti-war group. The very pinnacle of her activism occurred when she, along with a group of college students, broke into an Agent Orange munitions factory at night and destroyed a lot of the manufacturing equipment. Attacking the machineries of war during wartime? That easily qualifies as terrorism, probably even treason. They were caught on their way out and spent awhile in jail. Finally, thanks to an amazing bout of luck and a sympathetic judge, my teacher got off with a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony (her co-conspirators weren’t so lucky), which was very fortuitous because a felony would’ve precluded her from ever becoming a teacher.

So, yes, I personally knew a “terrorist”, and what’s worse, unlike Obama with Ayers, I don’t even disagree with her actions. Unlike the Weather Underground, which targeted and killed people, my teacher targeted the equipment involved in making a chemical of war that was used in extremely unethical ways by our military against a civilian population. I can’t really fault her for that. So you can excuse me for not feeling sympathetic for McCain’s line of attack on Obama, not even by one whit.

Just say no (to the financial sector bailout)

Monday, September 29th, 2008

I’m conflicted about the collapse of the financial bailout package. On the one hand, I’m losing a lot of money on the stock market and in my 401K. Losing money never made anyone happy. But hey, I’m young (just one year out of college), so my risk tolerance only draws the line at loss of limb or life. On the other hand, I really do think this is in the nation’s collective best long term interests, including my own. Here’s why.

We don’t need our money going toward a bailout of the failing industries of the past. We need it to foster the groundbreaking companies of the future. I’m talking about a New Deal-style investment in carbon-free renewable energy and energy independence. Why waste this $700 billion on companies that royally screwed up, companies that don’t actually create any tangible products I might add? They’re real good at printing paper, sure, but this latest economic collapse shows how successful of a strategy that is. The problem is that when you’re printing your own paper (CDOs, derivatives, etc.), the industry as a whole is effectively able to decide how large of a number they want to write on each piece of paper, regardless of any intrinsic value. And then when the house of cards inevitably comes falling down, hey, they’re all “too big to fail”, so the government has to bail them out! What a great scam.

I’m really hoping that Barack Obama is elected president, because he’s the only major party candidate (i.e. has a shot in hell at getting elected) proposing a massive investment in energy independence. He has a plan to get America off foreign oil in ten years, and along the way we’d significantly reduce our carbon emissions as well. Saving the planet is something we can all agree on. John McCain, on the other hand, is more of the same. His campaign is run by lobbyists. He’s consistently been on the dead wrong side of economic issues (when he understands them anyway), supporting the massive deregulation that got us into all of this mess. He has no real plan for America’s energy independence, only lip service. After eight years of Bush, another four years in the same style with McCain (or God forbid, Sarah Palin) would be an absolute disaster.

America is experiencing a class war of sorts: the massive looting of the lower and middle class by the ultra-wealthy. During Bush’s two terms, the median household income decreased by $2,000, while the ultra-rich got much much richer in comparison to the rest of us. This proposed $700 billion bailout of the ultra-wealthy from the tax revenues of the rest of us would only be the latest and most flagrant attack in the ongoing war. The most amazing thing about the Republican machine over these past decades is how they’ve consistently abused moral/cultural wedge issues (such as abortion, religion, and gay marriage) to distract people into voting against their economic self-interest by the tens of millions. Only people making $250,000 per year and up will save money by voting for a John McCain presidency — that is a really small percentage of the populace.

So say no to the bailout. Let the companies that screwed up to the combined tune of over a trillion dollars crumble as they so richly deserve. And instead of giving them one more cent, put that money to work in renewable energy. Injecting that amount of money will have the same stimulative effect on the economy whether it’s spent on the finance industry or on the green industry, except spending it on the former is rewarding the failures of the past while spending it on the latter is building the path to the future. The correct choice for America’s future is obvious.

Finally back from a long week

Monday, September 1st, 2008

I’m finally back from my ten-day “vacation”. Although I did take vacation days from work to attend the Democratic National Convention, it didn’t really feel like a vacation. Conventions are, by their very nature, thoroughly hectic. At least the two days in Breckenridge and one day in Boulder helped me unwind a little bit. One negative of the trip was that I hardly ever had Internet access (would you believe I don’t even own a laptop?), so I only had time to blog some initial impressions of Denver, thoughts on the musical talent, and those ridiculous abortion protesters. I suppose I’ll try to flesh out the rest of the experience now.

As expected, I saw all sorts of celebrities at the convention, including nearly every talking head from the news shows. I also saw every correspondent from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at one point or another. And I mention it as an after-thought because it’s a given, but I saw pretty much every famous Democratic politician. And just in the hotel lobby I ran into James Carville, Howard Dean, and Jimmy Carter. In terms of non-politician celebrities, Anne Hathaway was there, and my mom’s lawyer’s son even got a picture with her, but I didn’t see her. Drat.

The convention itself was really good, and everyone was impressed with pretty much all aspects of it. Hillary and Bill Clinton did what they had to do with aplomb, and there was very little lingering resentment from the Obama crowd. I was on the convention floor when Hillary put Obama’s nomination up for acclamation and the roar coming from the delegates was tremendous. Biden’s speech was very heart-touching and had everyone in our sky box crying. Then, of course, Obama’s speech on Thursday, in front of some 80,000 supporters, was amazing. The fireworks capped it off less subtly in case anyone watching it at home didn’t get it. Some Republicans prayed for rain but obviously God is feeling kind of spiteful at them right now, because He delivered unto them instead a hurricane during their own convention. Hehe. Payback’s a bitch.

The worst of the protesting that I saw was nevertheless still peaceful, and consisted of a big stand-off between protesters and riot police. The police won. From the limited amount of news coverage I was able to see, there were some arrests at other protests, but nothing too serious. I gather the protesting at the Republican convention (or what’s left of it, anyway) is going to be a bit more emphatic.

Everyone agreed with Obama’s choice of Biden as VP, while everyone was simply left in shock at the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP. The most common sentiment was “What in the hell was he thinking?!” Amongst other problems, she’s connected to the crooked Ted “Tubes” Stevens, is staunchly anti-abortion even in cases of incestuous rape, supports teaching creationism in schools, has no experience to speak of, and only met McCain once before he chose her. And this latest revelation, that her unmarried teen daughter is pregnant, won’t exactly have conservatives rushing to the polls to vote for her. If McCain really thinks that nominating a staunchly anti-abortion woman will woo over the rabid feminists that mainly make up the Hillary Clinton hold-outs, he’s even stupider than we thought.

Then, after the convention, our brief sojourn to Breckenridge was nice, relaxing, and scenic. We happened to be in town during their annual Rubber Ducky Race, which is actually slightly more amusing than it sounds. They have a stream running through the entire town, the bottom of which is fenced off for the event. Then, people buy or sponsor ducks and they are floated down the river in heats of many dozen each. The first duck that makes it to the fence wins. Granted, the event is kind of aimed at kids, but seeing those duckies getting caught in the eddies behind rocks as eager little kids look on is hysterical.

Oh yeah, and Boulder was very hippie. We went to the Pearl Street Mall, which was full of all sorts of interesting characters, attended a local fair which had some great local musicians, and ate dinner at an amazing teahouse that was imported piece-by-piece from Tajikistan of all places. I’ve never been to a Tajikistani teahouse before, but let me announce here and now that they are amazing.

So that about covers it. A good time was had by all. The convention went off smoothly, the parties were fun, and I got to see all sorts of famous people (again). Hell, I even got into the CNN Grill on Wednesday night, which was proclaimed to be the most exclusive ticket in all of the western hemisphere on that night. Here’s to the 2012 convention, and may we be nominating Barack Obama again then!