Friday, December 26, 2008

The Future of Geography = Online Gaming?

There is no secret that the US has lagged behind on science, math, and geography. It seems every month there is someone doing a survey in which Americans can't identify whether names given are cities or countries, never mind where they might be in the world (or even in the states). Do we know the difference between Iran and Iraq? Can we find East Timor on a map? How about Somalia? Or more specifically, Mogadishu? How can we take action in places like Darfur if we don't even know whether it is a city, a region, or a country (or where in the world is Sudan)?

So how do we improve our geography skills? How do we stack up against other people in the world?

One way is to travel everywhere in the world. I'm doing what I can in that regard, but at 17 countries I'm hitting less than 10% of the nations on the planet so that doesn't seem like a viable option. We could also study maps and take lots of tests, but we all know how much most of us like doing that.

Geosense offers another that takes advantage of our natural tendency to want to play online games. Geosense lets you play alone, or do real-time head-to-head challenges with people from all around the world. You can play with an interactive map of the world, an advanced map, just Europe, or just the US. You can even scramble it all over.

You'll be shown a series of city names. Depending on your map choice, a state or country name is also included. All you have to do is click the city's location on the map. If you play against others you will see your pick and their pick (as well as the correct pick). So there is pressure not only to know where the location is but to find and click on it faster than your opponent. Accuracy and timing add up as points.

Will it work? Will students (and their parents) get into the game and maybe learn a thing or two? I think it will help. We tend to be glued to our computers so why not take advantage of it to learn some geography.

Check out Geosense and let me know. It can be quite addictive.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review of "Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam" by Zainab Salbi

Salbi, an Iraqi who with her family was in the inner circle of "friends" of Saddam Hussein, doesn't tell you what two worlds she is between until near the end of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. But the reader can imagine many "two worlds" as they read this fascinating book.

In a way, Between Two Worlds is the coming-of-age story of a young girl growing up in a privileged family in a the 1980s. In another way, the book reveals the paradox of Saddam Hussein, a man who loved to party and loved having friends, yet partied and communed by coercion. While living a life that most Iraqis couldn't enjoy - cars, good schools, travel to Europe and the US - Salbi and her parents and relatives did so under a constant cloud of fear. Fear because their "special status" allowed them to stay in Iraq...and to live...because Saddam Hussein held them close as "friends" on his whim. Her father, Saddam's pilot for a while, at one point is asked to choose between being a pilot and friendship with Saddam because of a contrived slight. Fearing no answer was correct, he chose friendship, knowing that friendship would mean privilege but also fear. Her life, and that of her family, is an illusion of happiness, an "artificial life."

Throughout the book we see a young girl slowing realizing that Amo...Uncle...was not only leader of Iraq but a murderer, a rapist, a terrorist to his own people. A man who she "ultimately came to realize" did things "specifically designed to cause fear and hurt." She would realize the depth of this only after her mother marries her off at 20 to a much older Iraqi man living in the US...a brutal man she leaves after he rapes her. So now alone in the US when the first Gulf War (1991) pushes Saddam back out of Kuwait and starts a long decade of difficult times in Iraq, she starts to see life from another world.

To me, the focal chapter in this book is the one called "Becoming Zainab." Here she discovers real love and compassion, the pain of others, and her mission in life. She decides she must give back to the women who were abused physically and mentally. She begins Women for Women International and it becomes her passion as she travels to places like Bosnia and elsewhere to help women escaping from "rape camps" and other control methods often sanctioned by totalitarian governments. She fights against the idea that in some countries "violence against women was somehow expected."

She ends with "[b]etween the world of right-doing and the world of wrong-doing there is a meeting ground. There is a garden where women no longer need to whisper. I know it. Your real country is where you're heading, Mohammed said, not where you are."
I found this is be a powerful book. The earlier portions where she describes her childhood will appeal more to women readers than men, but men will in particular find the growing dread as she discovers more and more about the real "Amo." To both it provides a valuable insight into both Saddam's mind and the mind of a woman coming to understand how other woman are abused. A woman who dedicates her life now to helping other woman.

When I first saw Salbi's photo on the cover she seemed familiar. By the time I finished the book I felt I was beginning to know her.

I highly recommend this book. The insights are incredibly valuable as we face similar dictators...and similar abuses on other countries of this world.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Notes From a Political Observer - The Beginning

Welcome to the first edition of what may or may not be a series of "observations" from a political observer. Whether there are follow ups depends on interest - both yours and mine, so let me know your point of view.

I have my opinions, which those who read my articles and comments on Gather know I tend to state with great verbosity. But mostly I observe. Sometimes this comes in handy, as for example when my observations allowed me to predict the election exactly to the electoral vote (including the first in a lifetime split-off of one Nebraska electoral vote). What I hope to do is offer some observations of the psyche behind political trends and actions (or non-actions). The goal is to better understand how we think politically so that we can together think of how to resolve some of this country's most pressing issues.

I should begin by saying that I wasn't always a political observer. Like most people I have a life (yes, it is true, despite appearances to the contrary). As such there is only so much time for political discourse, much of which is unproductive as people stand on either side of the fence and lob verbal ideologies at each other like grenades. As some so vehemently ascribe, it often doesn't matter much who gets elected, as the wheels of government creak along the same ineffectual path, incrementally inching toward the next reelection cycle.

This election, however, was very different, in large part because of 9/11 and the political gamesmanship that occurred in the aftermath. Virtually everyone in this country was behind the Bush Administration following that fateful day. I was no exception. I wore my flag pin, I placed a US flag in my office window, I supported the routing of bin Laden and the Taliban from Afghanistan. I knew people who died that September day and I understood, as did we all, that action was necessary.

Without going into detail, the period of unanimity began to fade as everyone returned to somewhat normal day-to-day life, though that normality was not the same pre-9/11 normal by any measure. Moreso however, the universality of support was affected most by the actions of the Administration. Since the exact actions could take several pages and would no doubt stimulate significant debate in their own right, I'll suffice to say here that I felt the need for a different way of thinking.

Those who have read me know that I supported Barack Obama for President, but this was not the case from the outset of the campaign. I fully understand that there are legitimate reasons for others to choose another candidate. But contrary to those who say all Obama supporters are "Obamatons" or have some sort of groupie mentality or messiah complex, I began by closely observing all of the candidates, both Republican and Democrat. On the Republican side I felt early on that Romney was the most capable because of his strong business and managerial background and a proven executive track record. Unfortunately the "winner-take-all" nature of the Republican primaries and a bias from the right against his religion nixed his chances. Huckabee seemed like someone who thought deeply and communicated well, but he was unable to convince me that he could govern a diverse nation. Giuliani simply ran an incompetent campaign. I had been a supporter of John McCain back in 2000 and was happy to see him rise to the top, but I was discouraged by the fact that he felt the need to discard his principles in order to get the nomination. Others on the Republican side were simply not broad enough thinkers.

On the Democratic side I assumed, like everyone, that Hillary Clinton would get the nomination. She had name recognition, had shown she was a capable and competent Senator, was an experienced politician in her own right, and perhaps most importantly had access to the Clinton rolodex of donors. All of which should have made her a shoo-in. Unfortunately, she, like John McCain, seemed to lose grasp of the reality that this was to be a "change" election (which we all knew as far back as 2005) and ran on experience. She actually could have been both change and experience and did try that at one point, but frankly ran such a poor campaign from the outset that it, if anything, confirmed she was not the right person for the Presidency at this time. In any case, when I first started observing the Democrats I initially favored Joe Biden. Joe, like me, tends to verbosity and the occasional verbal flub. However, and perhaps presciently, after seeing a few debates I concluded that Biden was better suited to be Vice-President than President. Richardson had by far the most impressive resume but I felt he was not a particularly good communicator nor an expansive enough thinker - both skills I felt were critical for the incoming President. Obama certainly gave a good speech, as we all saw at the 2004 convention, but it was during the debates that I started to see both the expansiveness and inclusiveness of his thinking, as well as his confidence in making decisions. I later came to appreciate his management skills in putting together one of the best run campaigns many of us have seen in our lifetimes. In the end, it was his abilty to think that convinced me he was right for this time and place in history. Those who followed my writings will see that I didn't take sides on any candidate until I made my decision to support Obama. I preferred to observe first, and advocate later.

It is my observations that I hope to communicate with this blog. My intent is not to be partisan, but rather to explore the thinking from different perspectives.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Future of the War on Terror

We've been in the War on Terror for over 7 years now, assuming it started on or about 9/11/2001. We've gone after al Qaeda (though didn't get bin Laden). We've fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with forays into places like the Yemen, Somalia, and the mountains of western Pakistan. The question remains, has it worked? Or to paraphrase something former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said "are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?"

I offer for discussion the following thoughts. These are not a policy for which I am advocating, but rather a series of slightly less than random ideas on how we can more innovatively wage the war on terror. Please feel free to disagree, expand, expound, and by all means, offer your own ideas.

1) First, drop the "war on terror" moniker. Frankly, it suggests that all terrorism is the same. It is not. And as such it needs to be dealt with differently. The moniker has become trite, which isn't helpful.

2) Al qaeda does not equate with all terrorists. Listening to our political leaders, one would be hard pressed to think that everyone who does something that can be deemed terrorism is somehow linked to al Qaeda. Kind of a "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. The truth is that our political leaders want to lump everyone together because it makes it easier to communicate the concept of "war on terror" (see item 1). But doing so makes it difficult to deal appropriately with the different groups, and it also gives al Qaeda a kind of "rock star" status that then can use as a rallying cry.

3) Marginalize al Qaeda. Fareed Zakaria in his new book "The Post-American World" suggests that the al Qaeda leadership has basically already been limited to public relations stunts. Every so often a video or audio tape arises to rile up the loyal followers. But they have had to decentralize their operations to the point where control of terrorist operations now happens at a local level. In a way this is worse - it is easier to cut out a tumor as a whole than it is to get the cancer once it metastasizes and spreads throughout the body/world. On the other hand, we can exploit the fact that these satellite operations are out there alone. Perhaps we can convince them that most of the community thinks of them as "the losers of the neighborhood" rather than the martyrs.

4) Do the same for the other terrorist groups. All of these organizations represent a small minority of the people in their communities. Sure, much of the community might sympathize with them, but in reality they do so mostly out of either fear (think al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI) or because the terrorist organization is providing more social services (schools, roads, safety) than the government (think Hamas and Hezbollah).

5) Go after the money. This is one area for which President Bush should get a heckofalot more credit. By cutting off their funding trails, the President has effectively kept millions of dollars from getting to people who would engage in terrorist acts.

6) Think antibiotics, not OTC. Most over-the-counter (OTC) medicines treat the symptoms, and let the body's natural defenses actually deal with the disease. Antibiotics go to the root fo the problem itself, at the source of the infection. Consider "the surge" in Iraq. The increase in troop numbers gets all the press, but in reality this was merely the OTC remedy for the symptoms (i.e., IEDs, car bombs, sectarian violence). Additional OTC efforts included physical separation (segregration) of Sunni and Shia. However, much of the success attributed to "the surge" actually was the result of greater attention to the root problems facing the people. The "Sunni Awakening," which started well before the troop surge, and the negotiated suspension of hostilities of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, did more to reduce violence than any increase in troops (though all of these factors obviously acted synergistically). The bottom line is that we worked with the Sunni leadership in Anbar province to deal with a mutual enemy (AQI made the tactical mistake of killing more Iraqis than Americans).

7) Admit that we like Muslims. On its surface this sounds a bit silly, or perhaps bigoted. What I mean is that the Islamic world, and much of the non-Islamic world, cannot help but think the US hates them. President Bush, in a catastrophically poor choice of words, even used the word "crusade" in first describing this new war on terror. Our rhetoric often includes phrases such as "they hate our freedoms," "Islamic jihad," "Islamic fundamentalism," and even "Islamic fascists." Emails bantered about the supposed former history as a "Muslim" by our new President-elect, in such a way as to use someone's supposed religion (when they weren't accusing him of being a radical Christian) as a pejorative. But as Retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently, "the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No." Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and the world. I have friends who are Muslim (and Jewish and Christian and Buddhist and athiest) and they are just like everyone else...they don't hate America. They do, as does much of the world right now, wonder what the hell our problem is (but that is another post). My point, of course, is that if we demonize people, they will feel like, and act like, demons. And for the record, that is exactly how the rest of the world thinks of demons who are so self-serving that we don't respect the rights of others. Frankly, that's not a real good place to be if we want to call ourselves world leaders.

8) Go green. Okay, this one looks out of place, doesn't it? But it actually may be one of the most important things we can do to fight terrorism. Much of the strife on the planet right now has one source - our addiction to oil. Sure, there is sectarian strife, cultural strife, caste-based strife, religious-strife, etc. But much of that is also related to the fact that oil = riches and development (think Dubai), no oil = poverty and struggle (think India). By finding alternative - and sustainable - sources of energy we will remove much of the bases for conflict. Can we do it?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who will be in charge of energy policy in Congress?

The Executive isn't the only branch of government ordering up moving vans. A good number of long time members of Congress have retired, and of course there will be turnovers in seats as a result of this past Tuesday's election. Add to that the fact that President-elect Obama is likely to tap several current members of both the House and Senate to serve in his Administration. Rahm Emanuel, who just won reelection to the House before being tapped as Obama's Chief of Staff, is just the first to leave an option seat behind him. So there will be some jockeying for positions going on over the next month or two.

But another trend (okay, not sure if it's a trend, or a couple of cases) is the removal or attempted removal of some of the older members from their vaunted positions of power on various committees. I had noticed this early on and then this morning saw this article on the Politico web site: No Congress for Old Men.

Mainly the article deals with two high profile cases. After serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee for 50 years, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has voluntarily stepped down from his chairmanship. Voluntary is a relative term in government, and it was clear that he would be forced out if he didn't opt to do so willingly. At 90+ years old, it was time to release the chairmanship to someone who can more effectively run the Committee. This is arguably the most important committee in the Senate since it handles the money...No appropriations, no program (even if the program exists on paper). I'm not sure who will take over as chair, though there are quite a few well known names serving on the committee, most of whom are returning for the next Congress (though there are a few others that have either retired or been defeated [or in the case of Ted Stevens, might still win his election only to be forced out]).

The other big case pits one of the most vocal liberal members of the Democratic party (Rep. Henry Waxman of California) against one of the venerable and powerful chairs of the Energy and Commerce Committee (Rep. John Dingell of Michigan). This particular power struggle is fascinating and has potentially major ramifications for future energy legislation.
Most will remember Waxman's activism against the tobacco industry and others in his role as Chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As might be expected from a California representative, Waxman is very environmentally friendly (according to environmental groups). He also sponsored the House's version of the "Kid Safe Chemical Act" that would dramatically reform the Toxic Substances Chemical Act (TSCA) [Senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored the original bill in the Senate]. You pretty much know where Waxman will be on any issue.

John Dingell, on the other hand, is a bit of a paradox. He is generally considered a liberal Democrat, and throughout his career he has been a leading congressional supporter of organized labor, social welfare measures and traditional progressive policies. He also "was a primary force behind enactment of the National Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act of 1965, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act of 1977, the Safe Drinking Water Amendments of 1986, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990." But Dingell is from Michigan, which has put him in the position of actually thwarting legislation that would increase the CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards, based on his feeling that it would hurt the already limping auto industry that remains a big part of Michigan's industrial base. Furthermore, Dingell's wife is a lobbyist for General Motors (and actually a decendant of the founders of GM). While Dingell is considered a reliable and powerful member of the Democratic caucus, he has been at odds with Speaker Pelosi and others on CAFE and climate change issues.

This, of course, has potentially huge ramifications for the prospects of developing sustainable energy policy, which is a goal that President-elect Obama has indicated is high on his list of priorities. So, would having someone like Waxman (a California, "business-oversight" guy) or Dingell (a Michigan, "I know the auto industry" guy) in charge of the committee that will ultimately play a large role in our energy policy of the future? Would Waxman's views result in push-back from industry? Would Dingell's views put him in a better bargaining position with an industry that will likely be further affected by changes to energy policy?


Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Election is Over - Now the Hard Work Can Begin

It seems like the Presidential election has been going on for two years. [Oh, it has, never mind.]

But it's over now.

We now have President-elect Barack Obama. Congratulations.

Now the hard work begins.

Over the course of the long campaign we have heard a lot of ideas for change. Some of them are workable, and some of them are...well, maybe not. The financial meltdown pretty much quashed some of the grand plans. Others may take a little longer to accomplish. Frankly, I think Obama was pretty clear during the campaign that change wasn't going to be easy. And it won't be. So how do we do it?

For starters, the President-elect has to choose his cabinet and advisors wisely. Like Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" (thank you Doris Kearns Goodwin), Obama should look for the best combination of people with vision along with varying viewpoints. Whereas the outgoing Administration was noted for it's preference of like-thinking advisors, the incoming Administration should seek a wide range of views. Good ideas are not restricted to one political party, and neither are bad ones. The central focus should be on defining the key priorities for the future, evaluating all the possible options, and finding a path forward. The development of these priorities and ideas needs to be as open and transparent as possible. No edicts from above. Rather, there should be public discourse and buy-in to the priorities we set. Obviously there are things that cannot be discussed in public - certain national security strategies come to mind - but the goal should be to involve the American public as much as possible. And Obama should lead for all Americans. He acknowledged this in his speech last night - "I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too." No more games. It's time to lead.

Another key is Congress. The election brought an even larger majority to the Democrats in both the House and the Senate. More importantly, we now have the Democrats controlling both of the main operating branches of the federal government. This gives the potential for great power. But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. The Republican party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and frankly, they blew it. They saw it as a mechanism for securing their own party power rather than a mechanism for moving legislation that benefited all Americans. In all fairness, the Democrats didn't particularly use their power wisely either the last time they controlled both branches. It's time that Congress learned its lesson. Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid must act responsibly and ensure that important issues are brought to the floor for debate. They must ensure that the minority party gets a realistic say in how legislation is shaped. And the minority party (i.e., the Republicans) must play nice. No more stonewalling so nothing gets done just so you can get reelected by arguing the Democrats didn't accomplish anything. Both parties need to remember that they are elected to represent the people - not themselves - and not just the half or so of the public that voted for them, but all of the people. No more games. It's time to govern.

And the final key, of course, is us. We, the people. Our responsibility for governing this country doesn't end on election day. It begins. We must become informed as much as possible about key issues. The real issues, not the wedge issues that we argue over constantly and don't ever change. We need to tell our elected representatives that we want them to deal with the national debt, social security and medicare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, environmental degradation, soaring health care costs, energy, education, international relations, etc. These are the issues that are why we have a federal level government. We must make it clear we want the President and Congress to deal with these issues. But we must also be honest with ourselves and our elected officials. We reward pandering, and so they have little choice but to pander. We complain about Congress incessantly, and then we reelect the incumbent 98+% of the time. We have an obligation to learn, and to make informed choices. And this means all of us. Not just the Democrats who have just seen their candidate elected. All of us. The Democrats in Congress can't accomplish much without the Republicans, and vice-versa. We all have one thing in common. We are all Americans. We all want the same things - peace, prosperity, and a welcome place to raise our families. And we want to leave behind a country and a planet for our children and grandchildren without also leaving them with a huge invoice for our short-sighted mistakes. We can only achieve our long term goals if we band together. We did it after 9/11. We can do it again. And we can start in our own communities. No more games. It's time for taking responsibility for our own actions.

And so, now that the election is behind us, we must focus on making the future better than the past. We all have a role to play in the grand scheme of managing this country. No more games.

It's time to do it right.

Let's get started.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Do the rich pay too much in taxes?

I wrote the following in response to a post on Gather on how much the rich pay in taxes.

The US has had a progressive tax rate for a century. Through both Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses. So this is a false story to begin with.

Add in the fact that the actual effective rates paid at the highest income levels are much lower because they have access to tax shelters that lower income levels do not have. So while the theoretical tax rate might be, say, 38% for the rich versus 15% for the less rich, the actual rate might be less than 20% for the rich (most capital gains are taxed at 15%, and since the vast majority of the income of the very rich is capital gains, they actually pay only 15% on most of their wealth).

But all of this is irrelevant anyway.

How much do you make in a year? Are you in the top 1 or 2% of the very wealthy in this country? Do you really care that 1% of the superrich might have to pay a little bit more than the really poor?

Let me put it a different way.

Say basic housing, food, education, transportation, etc. costs are $32,000 a year. Of course, it can be more than that if I buy two big expensive houses and have several cars and vacation in Fiji, but lets just say that basic needs require around $32,000 a year to pay the bills.

Now assume you have a normal job that pays $40,000 a year. How much free cash do you have? You know, for extras, like buying your kids an ice cream cone occasionally. Or loading up the car to go camping. Or paying for that operation that you suddenly need.

Now assume you make $2,000,000 a year. How much free cash do you have over and above the $32,000 basic needs?

The difference here is that the lower income person has just enough to meet his basic survival needs. Any unexpected expense could wipe out everything. The rich person has so much excess over the basic survival needs that he can afford to buy bigger and nicer cars, bigger and nicer houses, bigger and nicer vacations. He can also stash money aside to cover unexpected contingencies. There is nothing wrong with that. More power to him. But the point is he has a lot of discretion as to how to spend his excess cash while the poorer person doesn't have much excess cash at his discretion. So if gas prices go up the poorer person might not be able to afford to put gas in his car, which might mean he can't get to work, which might mean he gets fired. The richer person simply grumbles a little more when he fills up his tank (or more likely when his assistant fills up the tank).

The other implied insult of all of this talk of "unfair taxation of the rich" is that somehow the amount of money you make is directly proportional to how hard you work. The rich are rich because they work harder and/or smarter, while the poor are poor because somehow they are lazier and/or stupider. This isn't often said out loud, but it is implied that somehow the rich are more worthy than the poor (otherwise they wouldn't have gotten rich, right).

This ignores the obvious fact that luck plays some role in the path we take. Someone born into a family of Admirals, for example, may have a path to the Naval Academy despite poor grades and behavior, whereas someone born into the family of steelworkers would have a tougher time both getting access to the needed elementary education as well as the proof of eligibility to the Academy. (You can substitute any profession and any well respected higher education institution)

Basically, if you start in a hole you can still scramble to the highest reaches. But if you start half-way up the slope it's a lot easier to get to the top.

The point is that wealth is not solely a function of how hard and/or smart people work. External factors outside an individual's control can also be very important. Any individual can reach the top if they work hard and smart and catch a break here and there. And we should all strive to do so. But consider how many otherwise intelligent and hard working people drop out of the race after the first 200 hurdles when they see others starting the race with only 10 hurdles to go. This is a source of frustration for many.

So whenever I see someone whining about the tax structure I have to remind them that this is the structure we have had for a century. It was put in place because some people have so much excess wealth that they can afford to help cover the costs of those who do not have enough to put decent food on the table (or even have a place to put that table). The alternative is to simply let people fend for themselves, which means that some children will be starving to death. We made a choice in this country many years ago that we wouldn't allow people to die simply because someone decided to put more money in their own pockets.

No, the discussion shouldn't be on whether the rich get taxed too much, but rather on how to help all Americans improve their own conditions. Let's help people get educated and trained and jobs. The more education people have the better is their chance to get and keep a good paying job and take care of themselves. And help contribute to the tax base so that the wealthy don't have to pay more. It's basic economics. Raising up the masses helps raise the econony helps increase the revenues helps the government reduce the debt (payment of interest on the national debt is one of the biggest expenditures of the government). It helps us all.

So let's not argue in general terms for something that will help a few hundred people. Let's focus on helping the other 300 million Americans enhance their education, which will enhance revenues, which will reduce costs, which will help the wealthiest among us.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Je pense donc je suis

Cogito ergo sum.

Rene Descartes originally wrote, "Je pense donc je suis" in his native French in Discourse on Method (1637). He later uses a Latin version including "Cogito ergo sum" in the Principles of Philosophy (1644).

I think therefore I am.

I've thinking about this phrase a lot lately. It has been used and misused many times, paraphrased to make completely different points on other occasions, and largely, I fear, ignored.

I wonder sometimes how much most of us think. We seem so intent to go through life doing what we always do, even when we have been complaining that we don't want to do it that way any more. We parrot talking points without stopping to think for one second if there is any veracity to the point being parroted. Worse, we parrot them even when they have been proven to be false. Still worse, we parrot them even when they make absolutely zero sense, logically or in any other way.

In other words, we don't think.

I'm sure that some people have already stopped reading this article. This to a large degree supports my very thesis. They simply do not want to think. Thinking is hard, and requires taking responsibility for our actions, our decisions, and our words.

There are others who are on the verge of labeling this as merely the pedantic musings of a self-absorbed intellectual elitist. I thank them for getting this far and ask that they stay a little longer and take to heart the point that I'm hoping to get across with this piece.

My point, of course, is that I am deeply concerned that we appear to have decided that thinking is a bad thing. That we appear to take pride in ignorance. Think for a second. What is ignorance? It is not so much the lack of knowledge, for we can never know everything. Rather it is the willful refusal to acquire knowledge. The more information we have, the more we must evaluate, assimilate, and integrate it into our thinking. In other words, the more we know the harder it is to think through the information, and the harder it is to make an informed decision.

Herein lies the problem. We all have our daily lives...our work, our family, our faith, our priorities...and it is easier to simply go with the flow. Changing our routines, built over years of rote learning, is seen as disruptive. More information simply takes more time to assimilate. And so we avoid more information. It's too hard to think. It takes too much time.

Which is why the "sound bite" generation has taken hold. We "don't have the time" to watch an entire interview, so we seek a sound bite to latch on to as "representative information." Unfortunately, as I discovered through a year of posting quotes by Abraham Lincoln, single lines taken out of context can easily be interpreted differently. They can easily be seen to support the viewers positions even when the point the speaker was making is diametrically opposite. And since information may show differently than what we are predisposed to believe, assimilating it can be hard. Sometimes it requires us to rethink our previous conceptions. It requires us to think. Therefore we tend to focus on those sound bites that appear to support our predetermined view. The networks dutifully feed us the sound bites we want to hear.

And we accept them without thinking.

The trick, of course, is to stop long enough to think. Blogs and sites like Gather allow people to create our own sound bites. Most articles are short, because people tend not to be able to focus long enough to actually read the more informative ones. Our comments are often short as well, and too often they reflect the predetermined opinions, biases, and even prejudices of the commenter and have nothing to do with the article itself. Often the commenters don't even read the article, including the short ones. We prefer simply to parrot our favorite line without thinking.

Needless to say I thank anyone who has read this far. I suspect that only a few people would be curious enough at the foreign title to click on the article in the first place. And of those who did come here, I suspect only a small percentage will read the entire post.

I'll conclude with a plea for all of us to think a little more. Let us break away from the sound bite mentality. Let us stop...long enough to question what we see and hear and read. Don't take everything (or perhaps anything) at face value. Think about what the question meant - was it a "gotcha" question like "Do you still beat your wife?" in which no answer can be made. Think about the answer - was it a simple parroting of the talking point...or did it show that the person understood the multiple viewpoints and deeper ramifications of the issue?

Let us all take just a little bit of time to think.

I think therefore I am.