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Calling out extremism

Sam Tanenhaus, a student of the history of conservatism and author of The End of Conservatism***, told a story last weekend on Bill Moyers Journal:

There’s a very important incident described in this book that occurred in 1965, when the John Birch Society, an organization these new Americanist groups resemble — the ones who are marching in Washington and holding tea parties. Essentially, very extremist revanchist groups that view politics in a conspiratorial way.

And the John Birch Society during the peak of the Cold War struggle was convinced, and you’re well aware of this, that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent, who reported to his brother Milton, and 80 percent of the government was dominated by Communists. Communists were in charge of American education, American health care. They were fluoridating the water to weaken our brains. All of this happened. And at first, [William] Buckley and his fellow intellectuals at NATIONAL REVIEW indulged this. They said, “You know what? Their arguments are absurd, but they believe in the right things. They’re anti-communists. And they’re helping our movement.”

Cause many of them helped Barry Goldwater get nominated in 1964. And then in 1965, Buckley said, “Enough.” Buckley himself had matured politically. He’d run for Mayor of New York. He’d seen how politics really worked. And he said, “We can’t allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe.” So, he turned over his own magazine to a denunciation of the John Birch Society. More important, the columns he wrote denouncing what he called its “drivel” were circulated in advance to three of the great conservative Republicans of the day, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Senator John Tower, from your home state of Texas, and Tower read them on the floor of Congress into the Congressional record. In other words, the intellectual and political leaders of the right drew a line. And that’s what we may not see if we don’t have that kind of leadership on the right now.

As if on cue, yesterday Joe Scarborough called out Glenn Beck:

“We’re going to have a conservatives’ honor roll on this show,” Scarborough continued, referring to his show, Morning Joe. “And trust me, you want to be on this honor roll. I’m talking to you Mitt Romney, and I’m talking to anybody who wants to be president in 2012 — you need to call out this type of hatred. Because it always blows up in your face.

“When you preach this kind of hatred and say that an African American president hates all white people you are playing with fire and bad things can happen and if they do happen, not only is Glenn Beck responsible, but conservatives who don’t call him out are responsible.”

***It’s worth noting that Tanenhaus distinctly does not want conservatism to end. He thinks it’s the heart of so much of what makes America unique.

Chris Timmons: Furniture in heaven

chris timmons

Please help us welcome Chris Timmons, who will be making occasional contributions to The Village Square blog to share his insights and conservative sensibilities.

“What I don’t get,” says one of the regulars in Donald Westlake’s hilarious John Dortmunder novels, “is all these clouds.” It continues: “A second regular put down his foaming beer glass to say, “Clouds? Which clouds are these?

“That they’re sitting on…You look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud —” Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t heaven come up with furniture?”

Westlake’s skewering of the ordinary man and his whims is one of the many delights of reading his novels. Do me justice: I’m an egalitarian man. I have no choice. I’m poor. Always been.

It interests me as cultural anthropology only —a man fascinated by his own kind.

So many of the notions we ordinary mortals get are out of place, disorganized by carelessness of fact, out of context, incomprehension of an idea —or just a plain unwillingness to be surprised by the randomness of the cosmos.

Do we have to be so knowing?

This health-care debate has been one of those great moments to really look at the virtues and limits of the regular working stiff.

My first attempt at this was watching some of the various town-halls on TV, beginning with Chuck Grassley’s. Then I carried myself to City Hall for our own town-hall with Allen Boyd and two medical doctors.

What I found was a bizarre and often mind-numbing recitation of statistics without factual irony, Bible-thumping and offers of prayer and prophesies of Armageddon, vile and boorish outbursts, rambling questions, and historical illiteracy.

These were to be expected.

Some people have reasons for these phenoms: The proliferation of niche media, the high-watt nature of its mandarins like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, political ignorance, the politics of personal destruction, political inertia, power grabs, a fiscal free-fall, racism, cynicism.

With all opinions or constructs, a point could be made for all of these things being true.

I think there’s among regular folks too much confidence in their political judgments, a knowing-ness that prevents them from taking in all views. How else can niche media be so successful?

Political ignorance is at an all-time high. Most people don’t know a fig about our political heritage, haven’t done any steady reflection on the ideas that have shaped this country since the founding.

Yet they feel entitled to have any kind of opinion on current events. Not only have an opinion, but have politicians and pollster quaver about their superior judgments on public matters.

This is all crazy, of course. Just like heaven having furniture.

Flu, facts and fury

swine flu porky pig

I happened to tune in yesterday to a few minutes of Sean Hannity to hear him rant about those controlling government folks again and their infernal state-run media, the Associated Press (which would probably come as a big surprise to the White House). This time it was in relationship to the flu vaccine and the government’s bent toward wanting to kill off all the old people. (Maybe everyone who works for the government was spawned - and probably by you-know-who – and doesn’t have parents themselves who might be among the killed-off?)

Hannity demonstrated his aptitude for flipping reality on its head while never needing to even pause to keep up with all the distortions. I’ve got to admit a grudging admiration for whatever talent that demonstrates. He implied (but didn’t quite say, which is probably his loophole) that the government was going to withhold life-saving flu vaccines from the most frequent victims of flu, our elderly parents. He quoted a couple of octogenarians saying it was OK with them, they’d had a good life and all and were willing to take one for the team. It all sounded so preposterous that I decided to look it up myself.

Here’s one of the AP articles:

The new swine flu seems no more deadly than regular winter flu, which every year kills 36,000 Americans and hospitalizes 200,000. But there’s an important difference: This H1N1 strain sickens younger people more frequently than the over-65 population who are seasonal flu’s main victims. So children are among the priority groups who are supposed to be first in line once swine flu vaccine starts arriving next month, and many schools around the country are expected to offer mass vaccinations.

Turns out that here is what is true:

  • The role of the CDC and public health is – and has always been – identifying the most at-risk populations and addressing those needs first, then less priority needs after. How’d you like to manage a public health issue without the them? (Think the AIDS crisis, during which I’d argue we saw true heroism from those government bureaucrats Mr. Hannity likes to rail against.)
  • Most years during the normal season flu outbreak, the most at-risk people are seniors both in contracting the illness and severity once contracted. Younger adults take their turn in line every year during flu season after the high risk elderly get vaccinated.
  • This time, seniors aren’t the most vulnerable, young people are. (I ran into my doc last week and he said that so far he’s calling the swine flu the “piglet flu” – not so severe and contracted mostly by younger people.) Older people seem to have immunity to H1N1, so they drop in priority.
  • The government (yes, government) along with drugs companies (yes, “big pharma”) get us our flu vaccines every year. Have no idea how they do it, but they do. Without them, the flu might just mow us all down.

Feel free to do your own sleuthing and give a yell if we’re missing something. I never could find any of Hannity’s quotes from government love-slave seniors willing to cash in their chips to save us $6.50. Please share if you can source them. Hannity’s implication is that millions and millions of Americans who don’t see things his way politically would actual be OK with denying their very own parents health care. Sheesh.

At some point, telling everyone that black is white becomes damaging. I’d say we’re there.

Don’t get your health news from Sean Hannity.

(Cartoon credit.)

Obama on civility

During yesterday’s President Obama talk show Round Robin:

And— unfortunately, we’ve got, as I’ve said before, a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy. What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get 15 minutes on the news, or your 15 minutes of fame, is to be rude.

And that’s— that’s— something that I think has to change. And it starts with me. And I’ve tried to make sure that I’ve sent a clear signal. And I’ve tried to maintain an approach that says, look, we can have some serious disagreements but, at the end of the day, I’m assuming that you want the best for America just like I do.

He also called ugly controversy “catnip” to the media. Ya think?

To support our first piece of guiding wisdom on healthcare: Doing nothing is not an option.

business roundtable healthcare costs

From a report from The Business Roundtable titled “Perils of Inaction: What are the Costs of Doing Nothing:”

“Without significant marketplace reforms, if current trends continue, annual healthcare costs for employers will rise 166 percent over the next decade, from $10,743 per employee today to over $28,000 by 2019.”

Sunday at the Square: 3 Faiths

jerusalem tree

In the book, Abraham by Bruce Feiler, he tells the story of an American who after winning fourteen thousand dollars on Wheel of Fortune, decided to come to Israel for a year. Fifteen years later he hadn’t left. He tells a story to answer why:

Two brothers live on either side of a hill. One is wealthy and has no family; the other has a large family but limited wealth. The rich brother decides one night that he is blessed with goods and, taking a sack of grain from his silo, carries it to the silo of his brother. The other brother decides that he is blessed with many children, and since his brother should at least have wealth, he takes a sack of grain from his silo and carries it to that of his brother. Each night they go through this process, and every morning each brother is astounded that he has the same amount of grain as the day before. Finally one night they meet at the top of the hill and realize what’s been happening. They embrace and kiss each other.

And at that moment a heavenly voice declares, “This is the place where I can build my house on earth.”

“That story is shared by all three religions,” David said. “And our tradition says that this is that hill, long before the Temple, long before Abraham. And the point of the story is that this degree of brotherly love is necessary before God can be manifest in the world.”

…This is not only the Spot where it is possible to connect with God, it’s the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another.

“The relationship between a person and another human being is what creates and allows for a relationship with God. If you’re not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, than you’re not capable of having a re1ationhip with God.” He gestured up at the Wall, the Dome, the churches.

Then he turned back to me. “So the question is not whether God can bring peace into the world. The question is: Can we?”

(Photo credit.)

Take 2 Aspirin: A Draft of Guiding Wisdom, Part 2

Take 2 Aspirin web

Here’s the rest of our draft ideas about health care reform. See the first part of the list HERE.

  • We “ration” now; the main question is whether we want to ration by what really works or by running out of money.
  • Americans bear some personal responsibility for the rising costs; we’ve gotten heavier & heavier…70% of all health care costs are lifestyle dependent.
  • The current system encourages more treatment over better care; we need to flip incentives to de-incentivize quantity and incentivize quality.
  • Reform requires increased power & choice by consumer; has to be patient-centered both in an economic and a clinical sense.
  • Consider the concept of incremental improvements. Good results start with imperfect beginning.
  • Lose the search for a villain; it’s not helping us address the dysfunctions.
    There is no magic bullet; one solution won’t do it and real change won’t come easy.
  • Everyone – hospitals, insurers, doctors, patients, attorneys, the government – has skeletons in their closet. The solution needs to have many fronts.

Cherry pickers galore.

cherry picking numbers

At this week’s Dinner at the Square we gave away door prizes by picking cherries with numbers on them out of a bowl. It was our little way of coming down firmly against cherry-picking facts.

Cherry-picking is epidemic these days. People use it as a launching pad for their fury. You see, if you can ignore the context of the many facts surrounding a problem, a situation, a person, an organization – then you can continue in your self-righteous fury unabated. And self-righteous fury is sooo the new lazy.

Gone are the old-fashioned days when more of us sought to understand each other, tried to grasp the facts, and might have even given putting them in context a go. Anger is sometimes the appropriate response after all that, but these days it’s out-of-the-starting-gate-de-rigueur.

Our institutions are beginning to reflect our hair-trigger fury and bent towards preferring only the facts that support how we want to feel. The market-tested-out-the-wazoo-uber-individualized culture we live in knows exactly what we want and we want fury. And they’re all about giving us what we want. Fury is good for ratings. We have whole evenings of programming devoted to cherry-picking in service of fury. It sells newspapers too. (Or maybe it doesn’t because really furious people aren’t usually mollified by being thrown bones. They’re like fury crack addicts who will just want more.) Maybe we’re getting the television, the newspapers, and the Congress we deserve.

Picked cherries lately?

Take 2 Aspirin: A draft of guiding wisdom, part 1

Take 2 Aspirin web

Here is a draft of wisdom drawn from our work learning about health care. It doesn’t yet incorporate last night’s input from our very wise panel. We know it will be hard, but part 2 is tomorrow.

  • The current rising prices of health care are unsustainable; doing nothing is not an option. Rising costs hurt us as consumers, they hurt small businesses, they hurt larger businesses competing in global markets.
  • It is important to avoid using anecdotes as a basis for reform rather than examining evidence in a more systematic fashion.
  • Free market forces are not functioning properly in health care to find efficiencies.
    • Insurer between doctor and patient pays bill; no incentive for conservative care and no supply and demand curve.
    • Patient lacks specialized knowledge and adequate information to function fully as informed customer.
    • Who bargain shops for their triple bypass?

  • We have a concerning shortage of primary care physicians because it is not financially rewarding compared to specialization. There is potential for other physician shortages with a larger pool of insured subsequent to potential reforms.
  • Potential point of consensus: Combine individual mandate for insurance with portability and prohibition for both excluding pre-existing conditions and recision of policies.
  • If there is a pubic plan, there has to be a level playing field; it cannot pay 80 cents on the dollar as Medicare does. Better model is federal employee’s health plan.
  • Single payer is not the same as socialized medicine. Single payer replaces private insurance as the source of payment; socialized medicine means all physicians are employed by the government, which also operates hospitals.
  • This problem requires long-term thinking. Politicians will always think in 2,4, and 6-year cycles. It’s us, the people, who have to think 50 years out and insist that they do too.
  • The health care industry is full of structural distortions; people respond rationally to the economics created by the distortions.

Tonight’s “Take 2 Aspirin” is sold out. But you can help us change that.

Take 2 Aspirin web

Tonight we’ll be having a real discussion about health care, with the range of opinion and experience at the table. We’re sorry if you couldn’t join us, but I wanted to take a moment to tell you how you (along with everyone else who is interested) can be there next time.

The Village Square is currently a national finalist in the Knight Community Information Challenge. Our proposal is that we will be a model for the town hall of the 21st century. Imagine instead of just one room of people, we can have a streaming broadcast of the program online, complete with being able to answer online viewer questions as well. You can join us in the slippers, no babysitter required. Imagine if you could participate in solving our problems as we build an information base and decision matrix as a resource to citizens confused by the constant partisan back and forth.

The key to seeing this happen is…. drums are rolling… YOU. Knight will ultimately judge us by how well we meet the local portion of the fundraising goal: $50,000. They want to see that YOU like us, that YOU, support us. If we win (and we think we will) then your donation to us will be tripled. (Beats Wall Street any day.) You can donate to us online HERE. Or you can mail a check to: The Village Square, PO Box 10352, Tallahassee, FL 32302. Donations to The Village Square are tax-deductible.

Our next step will be moving our concept to new cities. We think our model is inexpensive to run and highly effective for the minimal investment. We hope you’ll consider investing in us.

September 11th and the gift of the Masai


There are always moments amid the wreckage of what is worst in the human race, when we see clearly what is best in it. Even on 9/11.

There were those who walked toward trouble to allow the rest of us to walk away from it – the fire fighters, police officers, and in the case of 9/11, EMTs and Port Authority Police. They, like us on that day, had other concerns. . . kids to raise, bills to pay, oil to change. They put it all down and walked toward the horror to help strangers. There were the people who found themselves on a plane in Pennsylvania with an opportunity to save people they didn’t know. They did.

But there is a story of human kindness from 9/11 you probably haven’t heard yet.

About cows.

The Masai tribe of Kenya had raised money to send their native son Kimeli Naiyomah to medical school in the United States. He happened to be in downtown Manhattan on 9/11. They didn’t understand the full import of what happened that day until months later when he returned to Kenya.

“What happened in New York City does not really make sense to people who live in traditional huts, and have never conceived of a building that touches the sky,” explained Ibrahim Obajo, a freelance reporter working in Nairobi. “You cannot easily describe to them buildings that are so high that people die when they jump off them.”

What then did the Masai do for the people in most powerful nation on earth? They gave us cows. “They gave what is truly sacred to them,” Obajo said.

Across oceans, across language, across culture, their gift could not have communicated more clearly to total strangers.

Today as we remember the senseless horror of 9/11, I can’t help but think that the task ahead of us has a lot to do with summoning in ourselves the generosity of spirit shown by those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” that day in New York, in Washington and in Pennsylvania. And it has something to do with summoning the kindness of the people who gave us cows. We have to keep walking away from the darkness of human nature exemplified by the terrorists of that day. It will require everything in us to not become the hatred and intolerance we’re fighting.

I think we’re up to the task.

And maybe while we’re at it, we can save a bit of that generosity of spirit for each other.

(The above poster is from www.artaid.org)

A word about lying

As someone who has dedicated herself to improving the civility of our public debate for about 4 years now, this has been a depressing week. I believe in my DNA that our country is best served when very different people bring very different ideas to the table, we mix and stir and sometimes get downright angry but we stay connected in a higher cause that we share. That higher cause is our country. I think this is what makes America who we are.

This week I found myself wondering if we still share a higher cause. I think that the reaction to President Obama speaking to children was just sad. We have reached a point where the distrust of a sitting president is so deep, some of us don’t even want our children to hear him speak.

As President Obama entered the joint session of Congress last night, I teared up a bit when the Sergeant-At-Arms announced him. I thought: Here we are disagreeing fantastically and we still have a wonderfully stable state, where the president is announced as he always has been, whatever party he is a part of.

That warm fuzzy feeling lasted until “You lie.” Back to depression.

I want to share with you a wise quote I read a lifetime ago and it’s stuck with me… “You can only be as honest with other people as you are with yourself.” Again, “you can only be as honest with other people as you are with yourself.”

I think we suffer desperately now from a whole truckload of being dishonest with ourselves. We’ve isolated ourselves into hermetically sealed ideological groups. Think Shia and Sunni. We really believe what we say, even if we’re jaw-droppingly factually wrong, because everyone in our hermetically sealed jar thinks it’s true. We really believe the other person is a shameful liar, and we don’t trust them, and it’s just a skip and a hop from there to thinking they’re evil.

I often ask myself where this stops and how? Again, think Shia and Sunni.

For my part, I’m inviting you to have a good discussion Tuesday night on health care. Got to start somewhere.

(Feel free to share if you have a different opinion, I’m listening…)

America is a family: Elizabeth Dunnells Greulach would have been 100 today


The calendar can’t flip on a new day before I tell you about my grandma. She wasn’t like many grandmas.

She’d get the giggles and couldn’t stop. She’d have us all crying around the dinner table, less that we even understood the original punchline and more that her glee was infectious. I remember many moments of childhood mortification, like when she danced the hula on her return from Hawaii, along with the out-of-tune humming of the appropriate tune. Now the memory makes me proud. My grandma was an imp.

Her family was so much like most American families. We all have our odd birds and crazy uncles. We have our disagreements. We still rush right over if there is a phone call in the middle of the night.

Her father built bridges in Pittsburgh in the industrial revolution. He was conservative. My mother just told me a family story about my grandma’s cousin who played a joke on her dad one day. Her dad hated FDR so much, she thought it would be just the thing to welcome him home one day with a Life Magazine FDR photo gallery splayed around the house. She said he was so mortified that she thought for a moment he’d – literally – have a heart attack.

My grandma was fairly apolitical until she found herself living in Georgetown for a year in 1964 because of my grandpa’s work. By then she had raised her children and I suppose wasn’t your standard housewife (remember she was an imp). She whiled away any spare time sitting on Capital Hill watching Congress in session. She decided then that she was a Democrat (she told her grand kids this story: “I decided the Republicans were just against everything, so I was a Democrat.”) I can’t tell you what she’d think today, I can only tell you that, just as her Republican father would love her no matter what, her granddaughter would love her no matter what. It’s the kind of love you have when you live in a family.

All of our families are a hodgepodge of ideas, crazy uncles and disagreement. But it’s our American family.

We’re in a tough place right now as a family. We’re two days away from the the eighth anniversary of September 11, which shook us to our very core. We don’t seem to agree with each other any more, but maybe it’s because we’re not even talking (except through people who get a lot of money if we keep the TV tuned to them). There is a lot of anger on the right in America’s family, with many expected to march on September 12 to ask that we return to the spirit of that day.

I couldn’t agree more (please look at our founding thesis here). We should return to the American family that we all felt that day, the one where we disagree with each other, the one where we sit around the Thanksgiving table and deal with each others’ quirkiness, the one where we roll eyes, the one where we love each other despite it all. I think that anyone who tells you that the legacy of September 11th is that we should hate each other more is just wrong.

To my grandma. And to yours. Grandmas would tell us to mind our manners. So let’s roll up our sleeves and disagree where we need to. But let’s be partners in the disagreement, because we will sink or swim together. Let’s really listen to each other and speak respectfully. Let’s be an American family again. And when you’re feeling the impulse to hate, remember that on the other side of the aisle is undoubtedly someone who – no matter what – you’d rush to in the middle of the night.

Happy 100 years grandma. (And for goodness sakes, keep them hula dancing up in heaven.)