Saturday, November 21, 2015

'Scandal' tried to get serious and it was shameful

Art imitates life, and in some capacity, television is an art form.  Society loves good television because it reaches us in a variety of ways.  We want to be entertained, informed, and reflect on life.  Some of the programming is far more serious than others, and we expect those shows to tackle difficult topics. 

Opposite the serious programming are the more light-hearted or merely entertaining shows that we know are ridiculous or implausible, but we find it interesting anyway.  When these shows attempt to become something they're not, the result is often a haphazardly made episode that resembles nothing better than an after school special.

ABC's hit show, Scandal, attempted to pull off the serious, and it what it did was mishandle one of the most sensitive topics in the nation.  For the non-viewer of Scandal, the show revolves around the character Olivia Pope, a Washington D.C. insider, who takes on all manner of tasks in her job as a 'fixer' (a job whereby people pay an individual large sums of money to cover up or bury potentially embarrassing or illegal actions, hence the title of the show).  She also helped the president get elected as a political advisor / spin doctor.

The show is the product of ABC programming star, Shonda Rhimes, who has a monopoly on Thursday nights with other hits, Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder.  Common threads exist in all three shows:  strong female lead characters, sex, fast paced action, suspense, and over-the-top plot lines.  You know what you're getting in these shows.  I regularly watch Scandal because I like political dramas.  I know that when I'm watching Scandal, it's typically thin on policy, and thick on the drama.  It's a poor man's House of Cards, but I like it. 

Last Thursday, Scandal attempted to go big on a policy issue -- abortion and Planned Parenthood funding.  The episode focused on Olivia Pope's on and off relationship with President Fitzgerald Grant during the Christmas season.  The relationship started during the campaign while Grant was still married.  Their affair finally fractured the president's marriage and Olivia moved into the White House.

During the Christmas season, the Senate was considering a budget bill whereby the funding for Planned Parenthood would be moved to a discretionary part of the budget.  Senator Mellie Grant (the president's ex-wife) has a problem with this despite the rest of the Senate ready to pass the bill and go home for the holidays.  Grant meets with other senators who sponsored the bill, and when she expressed concerns, she is laughed out of the room by, you guessed it, a group of men. 

Mellie upstages the men by filibustering the budget bill, but during her hours of speaking, she's physically exhausted and needs to use the restroom.  If she relinquishes the floor, though, her filibuster will die and the bill will pass.

Ironically, the desperate help Mellie and Planned Parenthood funding needs comes from her archenemy, Olivia, who arranges for the Vice President (also a woman) to come into the Senate and ask a rather long-winded question so Mellie can use the restroom and defeat the funding bill.

The Vice-President discusses all the typically talking points that liberals tend to discuss about Planned Parenthood:  only 3% of their services are abortions, they provide much needed health care to women, and that women's needs are constantly overlooked.

At this point, the episode appears to be the usual antics of the show.  But after the funding bill is defeated, the show transitions to a montage of each of the main characters and how they're spending their Christmas.  When it moves to Olivia, we see her in a hospital / surgical setting, presumably receiving an abortion.  The show's background music is, astonishingly, Christmas related. 

The show lets viewers down in multiple ways.  We don't know that Olivia is even pregnant until the abortion occurs.  The show trivializes an abortion as an event that doesn't require any thought, conflict, or inner turmoil.  If Olivia agonizes over this decision, she does an excellent job of hiding it. 

In a very liberal tone, Olivia never reveals her pregnancy to the her boyfriend.  Yes, current law and Supreme Court interpretation states women are not required to do this, but it lacks the nuance that a man might feel knowing a woman would abort his child.  In fact, we can't even be certain who the father of the baby is.  We believe it's the president, her boyfriend.  Yet, the show has consistently shown viewers the sexual freedom of Olivia, and she never addresses the issue.

The demonstration of the procedure and the aftermath also does not reflect the problems many women endure after an abortion.  At the end of the episode, Olivia is back at her old apartment, sitting on the couch, and drinking a glass of wine.  While many people suggest this could be her way of coping with the abortion, I doubt it.  Olivia drinking a glass of wine at the end of the day is very commonplace in the show.  It's portrayal here makes the scene seem as if it's just another rough day at the office. 

The psychological problems associated with many women after an abortion includes difficult problems such guilt, shame, remorse, depression, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety.  Maybe these will be explored in a later episode, but there's no hint of it here.  Nor do we see any contemplation of the physical side effects that affect many women who have had abortions, such as post-procedural infections, sterility, excessive bleeding, cervical damage, and in some cases, death. 

Additionally, the show's writers seem to forget the fact that Mellie, who saves Planned Parenthood funding, is a Republican.  The president is also a Republican, and one would presume Olivia has those political tendencies since she aided in his campaign ... twice.  The Vice-President who helps prolong the filibuster is a Republican. The show works on the presumption that women will abandon deeply held beliefs so that they can stick together as women.  They are the heroes of the show because they are united in the cause of all women (at the expense of any personal beliefs they might hold).

In a stark contrast, the episode attempts to vilify the GOP's position on Planned Parenthood funding as a group of backroom dealin' men who try to "mansplain" everything to the oppressed women.  It lacks the depth that is necessary to understand the conservative point of view on abortion.  Many Americans look at abortion as the willful taking of an innocent life.  They are as entrenched in their beliefs as liberals are with theirs. 

There's no discussion of the morality or ethical nature of abortion.  No display of any remorse or regret.  There's no development of the storyline about Olivia's terrible family dynamic, which could have played a role in her decision to act.  Instead, in the absence of a well thought out script, we see Olivia as terribly selfish and cold.  Even pro-choice advocates would not attempt to downplay an abortion as such a routine procedure. 

We see her break up with the president, and the conversation centers around the fact that she's experienced a loss of identity.  Instead of being a power player in the nation's capital, Olivia is now reduced to being a hostess of White House parties.  She's distressed because she's not a 'gladiator' (the title Olivia and associates give themselves).  Olivia no longer wears the 'white hat' like the good guy in a Western flick.  She only wanted the president when it was convenient to her.

Shonda Rhimes' shows are supposed to be empowering to women in a modern era.  Women should have the rights and options that men have.  I can understand why she creates shows in the manner that she does.  Television needs women in strong leading roles.  However, in elevating women to positions of power with the programs she's created, Rhimes' characters provide examples of how equality with men is not quite as progressive as people think.

The leading women in Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder are strong individuals who command respect, wield enormous life and death power carelessly, manipulate everyone around them, and express their sexuality freely with multiple partners.  In bringing women to positions of equality with men, we see the corrupt nature of those women when put in the same circumstances as men. 

The cold nature of an episode centering around abortion hits the height of disgusting by coinciding with Christmas, a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.  The juxtaposition is insulting and disturbing. 

This episode is a disappointment on several levels.  It attempts to desensitize abortions, vilify legitimate concerns of the opposing view, and removes real emotion from what is undoubtedly a life-changing decision. 

I wish both men and women today could be like the women of the past. Women in society once displayed the best in humanity through compassion, fidelity, humility, and quiet strength.  I suppose those qualities don't make for great television, though.  And again, I know Scandal is so outrageous in its plot line, but it bothers me because so many viewers tune in and might somehow be fooled into thinking about abortion as no big deal and conservatives are out to prevent woman from having 'proper healthcare.'

The conservative approach believes abortion is tantamount to killing a child.  No one objects to women receiving legitimate health services, but characterizing abortion as healthcare wrongly numbs us to the loss of human life.  Even if Planned Parenthood performed one abortion, it would be too many.  That is why the conservative position objects to Planned Parenthood receiving federal funding.  Does anyone really believe a group of Republicans sit around and think about how they can make women's lives miserable through denial of health care?

Though I do not believe abortion should be permitted in any circumstance, I understand how the values and beliefs of every producer and writer color their television programming.  They have the right to create an episode about abortion.  Yet, the writers ignored the responsibility that comes with rights.  Americans need to temper the question of "Do I have the right to do this?" with the thought of "Is it wise to do this?"  Clearly, Scandal failed to consider the latter question, and their episode amounted to nothing more than a 60 minute distortion of the debate over abortion and Planned Parenthood.  Bad television, even worse politics.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Obama's coming to town!

Last week, President Barack Obama announced his intention of visiting Charleston, West Virginia to discuss the rampant drug problem in Appalachia. While no state is immune to the ills of the illegal drug trade, West Virginia has been more adversely affected by the influx of heroin and other opioids.  Regions within our borders have some of the highest rates of overdoses and deaths caused by overdoses in the nation.

I anticipated that the president's announcement would draw criticism from a large number of citizens here, but over the past three days, I've been baffled by the ugliness displayed in response to a well-meaning overture by the president. 

Conrad Lucas, head of West Virginia's Republican Party, called the president's decision to come here "tragic and offensive." What is offensive about the leader of this nation placing West Virginia as a priority on his agenda? This phrase of tragic and offensive has become the battle cry for the GOP in the Mountain State.

Do you want to know what's really tragic and offensive?  The Huntington tri-state area being on a pace for more than 700 drug overdoses this year, which is six times the national average. Statistics show that typically 10-15% of theses overdoses will result in death.  West Virginia has been leading the nation in per capita overdose deaths since 2011. 

The phraseology of Republicans was also on display in a media release, titled, "Democratic War on Coal Set to Spike the Ball Here: Obama Visiting W.Va. After Destroying Economy, Jobs." In this statement, the GOP attempted to frame the president as the lone figure in causing economic problems here. Its tone and demeanor also give a strong implication that the president's actions are the cause of substance abuse among unemployed workers. Strangely, I don't see the GOP supporting the notion of 'personal responsibility' with this issue.

Even if this was true, and Obama was single-handedly responsible for 'killing coal,' would you really spurn his offer to help a state that faces an existential crisis? Would any of us be so proud as to turn away assistance from the single most powerful person in the world? Do you truly believe he would come here to gloat and 'spike the ball' to a state that overwhelmingly despises him?

West Virginians don't want to admit that President Obama's administration isn't the primary cause of job loss in the coal industry. Yes, the regulations placed on mining operations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have made it more difficult to open and operate coal mines, the GOP and practically most citizens are ignoring the fact that the coal industry is facing a looming crisis that predates the Obama administration.

Back in August, I wrote a post about the economic difficulties facing West Virginia. I'm borrowing some of the material I used then to illustrate a point:
Mining was once dependent upon having a significant number of manpower to extract coal. Numerous people were required to create timber pieces and place them to stabilize mine. Prior to 1950, coal was loaded almost entirely by hand. Drills worked faster. Not even John Henry could keep pace. So, what happened to the production levels of coal? They skyrocketed.
In 1900, the United States produced approximately 200 million tons of coal. By 1960, that number had doubled to 400 million tons. The peak production of nearly 1.2 billion tons was reached circa 2010.
The number of mining jobs has been shrinking for over 100 years. Mechanization is killing mining jobs. Decreased demand for coal from overseas markets is killing coal. President Obama's impact on coal is nothing compared to the forces of economics. West Virginians have also been plagued by greedy business owners and executives, who have often profited at the expense of the coal miners.

Former CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, is currently being tried for various crimes associated with pushing for more coal production (to meet demand) despite having knowledge that mines were out of compliance with safety regulations. Where is the Obama-level of scorn for Blankenship? 

Where is the outrage over companies like Patriot Coal, who file for bankruptcy, allowing other companies to buy up their equipment and assets as a discounted cost, while leaving the company's liabilities in the wind? Retired coal miners' pensions have been lost due to corporate greed.

So, who's really responsible for killing coal? And for that matter, in nearly 7 years, Obama has not come for your guns. Are there reasons to be frustrated with him? Absolutely, but you're never going to agree with every policy of a politician. 

The President of the United States wants to visit a state that abhors his very existence. They didn't vote for him, in part, due to GOP shenanigans. Also remember that this is a state who has a problem that President Obama is half-black. In the 2008 Democratic primary, 20% of voters were actually willing to admit that race was a factor in how they voted. In the 2012 primary, 41% of West Virginians voted for Keith Judd, a prison inmate serving time in Texas for extortion and making threats against a university.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is why President Obama would want to come here?

Neither President Obama nor anyone in his administration has revealed the details about the duration of his stay, where he will be speaking, or to whom. The content and duration of his speech are also unknown.

Before we begin to throw stones at the president for showing up, I want to know why critics are quick to denounce the visit and claim that we don't need his help. Don't we owe it to the president to hear what he has to say before condemning him?

Maybe you're wondering what the president can actually do to help this problem. As the nation's chief executive, he has the authority to convene Congress for special sessions and power to suggest legislation. The president's powers also extend to cover all executive departments and government agencies. These groups receive significant funding to handle epidemics such as substance abuse and drug addiction.

What government agencies can help here? Plenty. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Center for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Health & Human Services, AmeriCorps, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Education, Department of Interior, and the Job Corps all have subject matter relating to the problems in West Virginia. They all answer to the President of the United States.

So, what's the problem? Do we really want to cling to our pride and hatred when the state is faced with so many problems, the greatest of which is drug addiction? Can we look past the political parties and ideologies that cause gridlock and somehow work together for a common good? 

Despite having serious differences with President Obama on numerous social and economic policies, I have a difficult time supporting most Republicans.  They can't focus on the issues.  The GOP constantly blows smoke, and their tactics smell of desperation because their transparency has become so painfully obvious. 

The time has never been more right for a new political party to form and supplant the Republicans in representing the genuine conservative interests of this nation.  There's no chance at reforming the Republican Party and Election of 2016 will bear that out.  It's easier to birth a new child than it is to raise the dead. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Dear liberals and conservatives: Please stop trying to make 'fetch' happen

One of the unique things about the American culture of language is that we seem to create more new words each year that become part of the colloquial lexicon. For better or worse, these words stick around. People like to coin new words or phrases. YOLO. Crunk. On fleek. If you repeat these long enough, the great masses of people latch on to them. People convince society that these phrases are cool, but, when you say things like "off the hook," you actually sound like a moron.

Politically, both the left and the right are attempting to use a similar strategy in persuading the public to accept ideas that don't have any basis in truth, or are not so cleverly disguised euphemisms which attempt to downplay a far more serious situation.

Any discussion of gun legislation in the United States stirs this type of strategy. The disturbing amount of gun violence in this country has spurred questions about what we, as a society, are doing to prevent these tragedies. Immediately, many citizens question what, if any, legislation is needed to help prevent this. While the issue of gun violence is a multi-faceted issue, considering a change to gun laws is one of many actions that would potentially improve the situation.

Conservative groups and the Republican Party respond to the suggestion of a change in gun legislation with platitudes such as "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Maybe you've heard this one: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Also, conservatives immediately raise the issue that bad guys are going to find a way to procure a gun, even if it isn't legal.

We should consider the fact that while legislation hasn't prevented some shootings in the nation, we have no clue how many shootings have actually been prevented by the current legislation. Mandatory waiting periods might have prevented an irrationally angry person from making a terrible mistake. Background checks create an obstacle that makes obtaining a gun more difficult.

Also, the legislation about illegally possessing firearms doesn't stop every incident, but how many terrible criminals have been busted for an illegal firearms possession that they would have walked for if not for that legislation. How many murders would they have committed with their illegal firearms?

So yes, legislation does provide some assistance in tackling a serious problem in the United States. Conservative groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) would rather classify any changes to existing gun laws as "an attack on freedom" rather than a means of combating a very serious problem.

The strategy of 'rebranding' is not unique to conservative elements of the political world. Liberal elements of American political culture have used the same modus operandi with respect to abortion.

Of course, abortion has been a divisive issue for the last century, particularly since the decision from the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. This summer, the issue became white hot when videos were posted online of employees of Planned Parenthood discussing (rather coldly) aborted fetuses. The reaction from Americans was to demand that Planned Parenthood stop receiving funding from the federal government because they perform abortions.

The defense from Planned Parenthood supporters was fairly predictable. They proclaimed that abortions only amounted to 3% of the procedures and services provided to women annually. This might be the most absurd part of their position I could imagine. Even if that statistic is accurate, any taxpayer dollars that went to an institution performing abortions would be too many.

Planned Parenthood defenders also attempted to recast the criticism levied against them as an "attack on freedom" or an "attack against women's reproductive rights." The ridiculousness of these expressions is mind boggling. No one objects to Planned Parenthood providing a service such as a mammogram to women. However, from the conservative position, an abortion involves the loss of human life. Why would liberals expect their political opposites to react any differently? Moreover, liberals have seriously downplayed the damage and impact of an abortion on a woman. Even if you believe an abortion is the choice of a woman, it would be a gross understatement to characterize an abortion as a "procedure."

Both major ideologies have attempted to use their tactics in an effort to pain the Supreme Court as antithetical to the ideals of our democracy. Of course, they only blast the Court when it rules in a manner that they do not like. The commonality between the two was their choice to deride the Supreme Court as an arcane institution that should be significantly altered to be more reflective of the will of the people.

Liberals found the Court detestable when it overturned provisions of the Voting Rights Act or allowed for groups and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in political activities.  Conservatives lamented the decisions made by the Court with respect to the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage.

Regardless of your personal opinions, the problem beyond these issues is the ridiculous level of 'spin' put on these important matters in our society. We cover the important matters of life by heaping these kinds words upon them to make them more palatable.

Euphemisms exist everywhere in our society. Buy a pre-owned car, not a used one. Businesses don't cut jobs, they downsize or restructure. The national government spends money at an alarming deficit, but it's described as stimulating the economy. Executions are called capital punishment. That meat at the supermarket isn't about to expire, it's a manager's special. Your child isn't lazy, he or she isn't living up to their potential. It's not genocide, it's ethnic cleansing.

The political spin has become so disgusting and sickening, Americans are actually considering Donald Trump a viable presidential candidate because he "says what he thinks." How much crap is peddled to the public that we actually become excited that a politician's best quality is that they say what they think?

The refusal to be candid has translated to a laissez-faire attitude amongst the people about some of the world's most important issues. Whether it's a conscious effort or these phrases are created haphazardly, people keep repeating them to the point where society feels it's acceptable. How else did fo' shizzle become part of the language?

But in the end, it's ridiculous to accept an explanation that whitewashes reality. When we allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep, we do so at our own peril. How many thousands of lives are cut short in an instant by guns and then forgotten just as quickly before we are disturbed? How many millions of abortions will end lives while we provide lip service to caring about the 'sanctity of life?'

Abandon the rehearsed statements and party lines. Engage in honest discussion. Allow your perspective to be challenged. Demand better from your leaders, and sift through the shenanigans they attempt to plant inside your head, because repeating thinly veiled stupidity serves no purpose other than revealing your own stubborn foolishness.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Has higher education lost its way?

"A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad."
— Theodore Roosevelt

The nature of our society requires adaptation and change.  Some would even tell you it's the only source of constancy in the world.  The fact that change is so prevalent necessitates that educational institutions adapt with society to better instruct.  Of course, not all change is good.

Yet, the current permutation of what we constitute as higher education has taken a direction that no longer turns out the same product as it once did, and the net effect on society has been negative.  In addressing the issue of higher education, it would be fair to first consider the purpose of higher education.

Higher education once emphasized not only the acquisition of knowledge and a set of skills, but crafting a well-rounded, more polished individual that contributed to bettering society in a multitude of ways.  In 1852, John Cardinal Henry Newman wrote concerning the purpose of higher education, noting, 
But a College training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man or woman a clear conscious view of his or her own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. 
 The focus of higher education has gradually drifted from Newman's concept towards one where colleges and universities emphasize only professional training.  Why did this shift occur and what does it mean for society?  

The digitization and high rate of technological development in the world has translated into colleges and universities vastly expanding their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs.  Technological development and innovation are undoubtedly vital to the future of not only the United States, but the world.  These fields lead to better ways of living and an overall advancement of society.

Preparation for work in these fields is highly technical, and often is very concrete in terms of thinking and analysis.  The mathematician solves equations.  Computer programmers work in code.  Engineers are bound by physics.  These worlds are built on a complex set of systems and finite rules.
Even non-STEM fields require an element of professional training.  Teachers must learn different strategies, and hone skills for classroom management.  Businessmen must learn fundamental concepts of economics and law.  Psychologists must understand the scientific method.

Costs of higher education have also affected the mission of colleges and universities.  The costs of tuition, fees, and housing have increased dramatically over the last 20 years, and the median income of Americans has not matched the pace.

The average tuition and fees for an in-state student at a public university is averages around $9,000.  That, coupled with another $9,000 in estimated housing costs creates an enormous burden on those seeking a degree.  Students could be facing down nearly $80,000 in debt when they graduate and the degrees many of these people earn do not provide jobs that make it feasible to pay back those loans in a timely manner.

Higher education has also become too business oriented for its own good.  They seek to draw in as many students as possible to pay the exorbitant costs, without regard to whether or not many of these students should be in a collegiate setting.  If you're questioning whether or not we should be more stringent upon who enters college, then consider that the national freshman retention rate is approximately 67%.  One out of every three college freshmen will not return for their sophomore year.  Despite having sub-part academic records and very low test scores, colleges consistently allow students entrance without any regard for the financial impact on an 18 year old child.  For many schools, the quality of their dormitories is far more important than the quality of the education.

Part of the fallout from this trend is that students attempt to take only the classes they need to graduate rather than exploring their interests through electives.  Additionally, the schools are under pressure to scale back the number of courses needed to graduate or remove electives from the required curriculum in an attempt to assist students in saving money.  Doing so deprives these students of the balanced type of education for which colleges were designed.

Most schools have some sort of general requirements that all students must fulfill regardless of their major field of study.  Everyone remembers taking a fine arts credit – music appreciation, anyone?  The current mindset towards the arts and humanities also has developed because the increasing number of students in the STEM fields place their priorities on the classes they see as most beneficial to their lives and careers.  This leads to students spending the bulk of their time studying for the classes in their major.  Does a chemistry major really mind all that much if they earn a “C" in sociology or British Literature as long as they are successful in their science courses?

So, why should we necessarily care about this change in the objectives of higher education?  Do the humanities and arts even matter if students aren't majoring in them?  And why should people major in those fields?

First, the study of humanities provides a context to understand the sciences.  History, sociology, and anthropology, for example, demonstrates the significance of science to our lives.  They place technology and advancement within a scope that shows where we have been, how far we have come, and where we will someday go.

The study of the arts and humanities benefits the individual mind by generating a more compassionate and thoughtful citizen.  Studying other cultures, problems within a society, and probing psychology portrays people as more than just numbers, but as individuals who are working through life and the human experience.  As a result, these fields tend to generate a more personable individual who can connect and empathize with others more easily.

Scientific studies also (ironically) reveal that students who graduate with degrees in the humanities and arts compare more favorably at critical thinking and problem solving than their counterparts in the hard sciences.  These fields often provide more opportunity to break free from the constraints of the more finite world of science.

Most importantly, students of the humanities and arts also have a different outlook on the aesthetics.  They see not only the surface, but are constantly peeling back the layers of their observations.  They see a painting for not just its technical value in terms of the brush strokes, but for the sake of beauty itself.  These students look at a sunrise in a palpably different manner.  Novels are beyond being just a good story.  A ten line poem can speak immeasurably more than the most in depth biography.

When we subtract the arts and humanities from education, we rob both the individual and society. These fields of study provide an individual with a better understanding and appreciation for the world around them, and assist them in furthering the world in the sciences.  It is for their personal edification and the benefit of society at large to have more knowledgeable, well-read, and compassionate individuals. 

There was a time that if a person held a bachelor's degree, you could make certain presumptions about that individual.  They were articulate, well-read, thoughtful, civic-minded, and skilled in their chosen profession.  Colleges and universities no longer produce this type of person, and they do so at the peril of society.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Who is a hero these days?

Recently, I've given much thought as to what defines a hero, or even heroic actions.  I suppose the subject has crossed into my mind due to the national trend of labeling popular culture figures as heroic or courageous.  The national interest in the discussion of courage began this summer when former Olympic champion and reality television star Bruce Jenner announced that he identified as a woman, and wished to be called Caitlyn. 

Many Americans were puzzled by Jenner's transformation, but the issue became controversial when the ESPN sports network decided to give Jenner their annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  The award is typically given to someone in the athletic world whose actions or contributions to society somehow transcend sports.  Critics of Jenner derided ESPN's decision to give a sports award to someone who hasn't actively participated in sports for decades.  The anger didn't stop there, however.  Critics were frustrated with the notion that Jenner's decision to become a woman was associated with courage.

The question before society:  what makes an act heroic or courageous?  What criteria exist for such a distinction?  

First, I believe that courage isn't limited to the same set of actions for every person.  Inexorably, courage requires overcoming fear.  The  fears of each individual vary greatly.  Our environment dictates many of our fears, and I would imagine that the evolution of mankind has also created some innate predispositions to fear.

A confrontation with fear is a fundamental component in courage.  To place oneself towards a trajectory with a terrifying situation defies our natural survival instincts.  Many fears stem from a sense of danger — whether real or perceived.  If any of us can override our sense of self-preservation to act in defiance of danger, that is an indicator of inner strength.  

But what can we really say about overriding our fears and acting against our instincts of self-preservation?  In many instances, acting against our instincts is foolish and borders on insanity.  Would we label a person as courageous if they jumped into a freezing lake in the middle of winter?  Of course not.  

Beyond the confrontation of fear, acts of courage must contain an element of selflessness.  When a person acts in such a way as to place their life in danger, it must be for someone other than themselves.  What does an action mean if it is only for selfish gain?  Such activity represents desperation, and not courage.  

The selflessness of a courageous act is inherently coupled with a purpose.   A person can't claim courage or bravery for acting in reckless manner to help someone without purpose.  In most instances, it is the greater purpose that drives us to act courageously.   Emotion and sentiment create the ability within us to place the well-being of others before ourselves.  But without purpose or direction in our deeds, then they ultimately become about ourselves and not about others.  This strips our actions of selflessness and there is no honor or courage in such things.

Moreover, real acts of courage will come at great personal cost.  It is one thing to act selflessly, which will benefit others.  But it is even greater when you know the net effect of your actions causes you pain.  What are you willing to lose for the sake of others?

I'm also convinced now that courage comes from a position of weakness.  Though the heroic act or deed involves a confrontation with fear, that often is, in part, a fear based on the unlikelihood of completing the task.  Maybe it would be more accurate of appropriate to state that danger isn't the only thing we must overcome.  The potential for failure must exist for an act to be courageous, for if anything could be achieved by a large portion of the people, then we would cease to see the awe in the courageous act.  Where would the courage be in overcoming fear if you were certain you would succeed?

The final element of courage requires acting in such a way that works toward moral goodness.  And I suppose many people would claim that goodness is relative.  I disagree.  There are absolutes in this world.  I have neither the time nor inclination to go into great detail about this issue at present, but before we go any further, let me state this:  if you claim there are no absolute truths, then you have just created an absolute truth.  

If one's actions are not rooted in some transcendent form of goodness, of what value are they?  Who is willing to give praise to someone acting in a capacity other than what is good?  I am willing to admit that it often can be difficult to distinguish between good and evil, but that doesn't change the fact that we inherently know that goodness is somehow inextricably linked to acts of courage.

Society wants its heroes.  Society needs heroes.  But are they as common as we would like to believe?  The notion of heroism and courage being so prevalent in society is both true and false at the same time.

The things that society often labels as heroic or courageous are rarely as glorious as we have been led to believe.  Look at the actions of celebrities and politicians.  When these individuals take any stance that places them in the minority, their followers believe that person is brave for "taking a stand."  I believe the reality is that these people are just adopting an unpopular position.  In some instances, they may even be taking an outmoded or unprincipled line of thought in an attempt to justify a personal belief, and someone will suggest that it takes courage to do so.

The Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner transformation is one such example.  The liberal segment of America applauds Jenner for "being who she really is."  However, I don't believe Jenner's actions rise to the level of courage.  While Jenner confronted a fear to change so radically, there are some unanswered questions about this situation.

Why was Jenner so intent on making a spectacle of this transition?  One could argue that an element of selflessness and purpose exists, though.  Maybe Jenner came our in this fashion as an example to others who face a similar struggle.  And if that is true, then a greater purpose exists.  Yet, I don't see these actions as selfless.  Jenner has drawn more attention to herself than necessary for the greater purpose and undoubtedly profited financially from the international media attention.  

The liberals in society are not alone in their false characterization of heroes.  Conservatives are quick to label all members of the military as heroes.  While the term hero applies to many individuals in the armed serves, it's not universal.  Unfortunately, some of our servicemen have been guilty of gross acts of injustice.  For instance, in 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, several members of our armed forces tortured and humiliated captives at the Abu Ghraib prison.  Would we characterize these actions as heroic?  Not at all.  Even if I were willing to admit these actions were necessary in conflict, that would not make them heroic or courageous.

Though instances of courage and heroism aren't as prevalent in the larger landscape of society, that doesn't mean they don't take place on a smaller scale.  The heroes of society cannot be found in the limelight.  They shun attention and live quietly among us, going about their daily routines.  They are the people who would never characterize themselves as heroes, and not solely because of their sense of modesty, but because they realize that true acts of courage are a necessity in this life.  

Heroes aren't trying to become heroes, as they are instead interests in fulfilling an obligation.  They are our friends, neighbors, and family.  We don't always see them working as courageous, because we have grown so accustomed to their selflessness and sacrifice.  It is only in their absence do we sense precisely how valuable they have been.  And hopefully, this will spur us to do for others what has been done for us.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Southern West Virginia is on life support ...

One of the defining characteristics of West Virginia is coal.  The extraction of our version of black gold created an economic center for the state.  An unbelievable amount of jobs and commerce connect to coal mining.  Mining requires shipment through river, rails, and roadways.  The transportation of coal provides numerous jobs, which necessitates a large number service industries to provide for the needs and consumer goods.  The state has profited greatly from coal production despite peaks and valleys in the business.
Now, coal is on the way out.  People of West Virginia point towards government regulation from the Obama administration as the primary cause for coal's decline.  There's far more to the downfall of coal than the current president.  Coal miners have been victimized by mechanization, changes in demand for coal, and ultimately new forms of energy production.  
The loss of coal as a staple for economic development in West Virginia is a problem for numerous counties, and changes must be made not only to ensure the citizens here can prosper, but to prevent the onset of widespread poverty.
Mining was once dependent upon having a significant number of manpower to extract coal.  Numerous people were required to create timber pieces and place them to stabilize mine.  Prior to 1950, coal was loaded almost entirely by hand.  Drills worked faster.  Not even John Henry could keep pace.  So, what happened to the production levels of coal?  They skyrocketed.  
In 1900, the United States produced approximately 200 million tons of coal.  By 1960, that number had doubled to 400 million tons.  The peak production of nearly 1.2 billion tons was reached circa 2010. 
For those same years, the mining industry has seen a significant loss in jobs.  
In 1900, the number of miners employed was approximately 450,000.  In 1960, that number shrunk to 188,000.  And in 2010, that number had dwindled to about 80,000.  Mines have been producing more coal with less human labor.
Of course, the industrialization of the coal industry isn't the only reason for loss of jobs.  The development of other forms of energy has changed the playing field.  Coal once was responsible for providing a majority of the nation's electricity.  Since the inception of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s, the nation has found different forms of generating electricity, including nuclear, solar and wind power, and more recently, natural gas.  These forms of energy continue to eat into coal's market share for the nation's electricity.  As of 2014, coal provided 40% of the nation's electricity, but if current trends continue, forecasts call for the number to drop to approximately 25% by the year 2030.
The shrinking demand for coal is not only an American issue.  The coal industry actually resurfaced in the mid-1990s due to a higher worldwide demand for coal, particularly in China.  But even the Chinese now have curtailed their use of coal because of the environmental impact.
Coal mining and its use as an energy source isn't going to disappear.  However, West Virginians must confront the fact that these problems, in combination with more restrictive policies adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are not going to improve.  The state has ignored a hard truth for far too long:  coal just ain't what it used to be.
So, what now?  How does West Virginia cope and how do we make up for lost economic opportunity?  The sense is that so many citizens here are going through the stages of grief over the loss of coal — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  No, that's not a joke.  From what I can see, most people connected with the coal industry seem to be somewhere in the first two stages.  It's not easy to move on from a line of work that's become not just a means of supporting a family, but a part of cultural and personal identity.  What does a coal miner do when his job is made obsolete or unworkable?
The great challenge of the next decade (or two) will be to transition the coal workforce into other economic opportunities and also stabilize regions of the state that have been financially reliant on coal for the last century. 
The state of West Virginia and the federal government already have a few options in place to offset losses in the mining industry.  West Virginia was one of a few states awarded millions of dollars dedicated towards training laid off miners.  The money will be dedicated towards technical training programs that require similar skills and attributes as mining.  
Some of the training received under these grants has allowed many men and women to successfully transition from the coal industry to other energy sectors, including the shale boom in the northern part of the state.  Others have trained in areas such as welding, diesel mechanics, and electrical work. While many of the miners are taking advantage of such opportunities, these types of jobs have forced people to relocate away from their homes.  Also, most of the jobs they now perform don't pay nearly as well as the mines.  Can you blame them for being frustrated?
I would be angry if my chosen profession was slowly be phased out, in part due to the government, and then they provided me with a job that paid significantly less money.  I love working in education, and I'm certain many of these people loved working as a miner.
It's also important to realize the level of devastation that takes root when the only major economic opportunities of an area leave.  It would be too easy to examine the plight of McDowell County, where mining jobs and population have been shrinking since the 1950s, while poverty and drug abuse are soaring.  The lack of opportunity and problems there have been highlighted in some of the nation's most prominent newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Logan, Boone, Mingo, and Wayne counties are the most recent victims of the coal decline.  The ripple effect in these counties has already begun.  Severance taxes from the coal mining industry have long been a major source of revenue for these counties (this tax provides the county with 5% of the gross value of coal mined).  The shutdown of mines has created a gaping hole in many county budgets, leaving significantly less money for the necessary upkeep of infrastructure and valuable government services, such as police protection.
These four counties are experiencing loss in funding, which means government has more difficulty providing for their citizens.  Dilapidated infrastructure, less government services, and decreased economic opportunities will only decrease the population.  The shutdown of mines also bleeds over into the service industries.  An exodus from these counties also depletes the tax base, causing an even greater loss of revenue.  The housing market in these areas already suffers, and when people put their homes up for sale in these areas, no one will be able to afford them, or have reason to purchase them.
The rest of Southern West Virginia is in danger of becoming like McDowell County.  Here's some significant data to consider, comparing these four counties to the rest of West Virginia and McDowell:

Statistics were taken from U.S. Census at

The poverty rates of these four counties already exceed the state average.  Population decreases (reflecting 2010-2014) are alarming.  High school and college degrees are in short supply by comparison.  The value of homes in these counties are 20% below the state average and incomes already lag behind.  How much worse can the situation become?  Look at the far right column and that is a good indicator of what happens when coal leaves a region and nothing replaces it.
What does the state need to do to avoid such a fate for Southern West Virginia?  Here are some suggestions.
  • Drawing manufacturing or technology jobs to rural West Virginia is a challenge.  To bring in business, we should offer greatly reduced corporate tax rates for an extended amount of time, provided that a business promises to keep their facilities in the region beyond the tax break time frame.   
With land being fairly cheap in these areas, why not recruit businesses to come?   In many of these southern counties, access exists to waterways, railroads, interstate highways, and air traffic in Charleston and Huntington.
  • Develop specific programs that give students loans for either college or vocational training.  If these students agree to work in a designated county for a given amount of time, their loans would be forgiven, based upon the amount of time they work in one of these poverty stricken counties.  
  • Incorporate computer programming into public school curriculums. Though we would all like to see manufacturing jobs return in large quantities, we should face the reality that not all of them will come back.  If the state starts mandating computer programming, students would develop a skill throughout school that will benefit them personally, and create a pool of potential employees for technical jobs.   
  • Solicit help from businesses within West Virginia.  If businesses would commit a certain percentage of their profits to an investment into their community, imagine what might happen.  If businesses could even offer their services.  One of the greatest needs is to demolish condemned houses and buildings in communities.  Government grant money can't keep up with the need to eliminate these eyesores, which turn into hazards and potential criminal hotspots. What if construction companies and contractors volunteered to demolish one building every six months for free?  
Smaller businesses might struggle to meet the demands, and that's okay. But there are enough franchises and corporate entities in the area that could help absorb the costs.  Walmart would be an ideal corporation to approach, considering they are the largest private employer in the state.  Such philanthropic efforts would benefit corporations since these places are their workforce and customer base. 
  • Recruit churches and local organizations to volunteer their time.  Often, people are more apt to give money rather than time.  West Virginia needs people to give of their time, expertise, and resources.  Each of us should be asking, "How can I help?"  
These groups should reach out to the local schools and work with children to help them plan ahead for the future, and encourage them to be part of the community.  After school activities. Community cleanups.  Town fairs. Developing a sense of community pride.
  • Open up teaching opportunities to those who have a four year college degree in a particular field for counties with a designated need.  As someone with a background that includes a degree in education, I'm not one to normally advocate for such a measure, but these rural counties are absolutely desperate for teachers with the adequate knowledge base.
I'm aware that many other solutions and ideas could be out there, but West Virginia needs to act in a drastic fashion or a wide swath of counties will be looking more like McDowell County, which is the poorest in the nation.  
Additionally, McDowell County has higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and lack of physical activity than the state's average.  An even more frightening trend is the increase in drug abuse, both from prescription drugs and illegal narcotics.  This county also has increased rates of alcohol abuse and incidents of driving while under the influence.  
McDowell County will be the future of Southern West Virginia if we do not act immediately and decisively and this can't happen.  


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Chump: A political embarrassment for the United States

"Shamelessness is the nadir of the soul."  

— C.S. Lewis

The Election of 2016 is more than a year away and that hasn't stopped the race from enticing all sorts of candidates from announcing their intention to run.  By far, the most intriguing individual to announce their candidacy is billionaire Donald Trump.

As a businessman, Trump has a remarkably successful resume.  Through mostly real estate development and stock holdings, his net worth is estimated to be approximately $3 billion.  However, Trump has never held a political office at any level.  And success in one field doesn't necessarily mean that success will follow in government.  It's often difficult to even create a successful campaign without any political experience.  Ross Perot attempted the transition from businessman to president with no government background and in the Election of 1992, he gathered 19% of the popular vote but carried no states in the Electoral College. 

Donald Trump is poised to become a different sort of candidate.  In the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he's polling well ahead of almost all other Republican candidates.  And his popularity only seems to be increasing despite generating controversy with many of his comments about ethnic groups, foreign nations, and specific individuals.

A nationwide poll released today (conducted by Quinnipiac University) has Trump leading all candidates with 20% support.  The only other two candidates who are close are current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (at 13% and 10% respectively).  No other of the two dozen candidates reached the 10% barrier.   

So why is Trump this popular?  What is it that Trump is doing that resonates with Americans?  NBA owner Mark Cuban summed up his thoughts on that question, stating,
I don't care what his actual positions are. I don't care if he says the wrong thing. He says what's on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.
I believe that Cuban is correct in his assertion, but it reveals the problems with Cuban, Trump and the general public.

I don't care what his actual positions are.  Cuban's statements are indicative of a larger problem in the United States.  Despite having greater access to information than ever before, Americans still choose to ignore the positions and policies candidates have endorsed or enacted in the past and what they intend to to do in the future.  

Americans have so many offices to consider in any given election year that it's very difficult to genuinely research the candidates and make an informed decision.  The GOP has over 20 candidates seeking their nomination for president.  That decision alone for a voter requires looking up the information, watching debates, and carefully weighing those options.  That alone is a difficult task.

All 435 House seats are up for election every two years and one-third of the Senate will face re-election.  Add to this all the state and local offices that must be decided and voters feel overwhelmed.  

Consider also that voters are human beings with a personal lives and jobs.  When we come home from work, we want to rest.  We want to spend time with family.  We want to watch a movie, read a book, or go for a run.  The last thing most Americans want to do is research political candidates.  

Our attention is sharply divided and it is much easier to cast a vote based on party affiliation, loyalties because of ties to a labor union or other interest group, or because of the quick sound bites and advertisements on television and radio.  

Living in a democracy affords a citizen with a great number of rights and privileges, but there comes a price attached.  Because the power ultimately resides in the citizens, it is incumbent upon them to remain diligent in selecting the best possible candidates for public service.  When we stop caring about policy positions, we reduce elections to nothing more than a popularity contest.

I don't care if he says the wrong thing. He says what's on his mind.  I can't pretend to understand every motive Cuban had or currently has, but he gives the implication that saying what's on your mind is a good thing.  Throw political correctness out the door.  However, consider what Donald Trump has been saying lately.  They reveal intention and character.

Consider what Trump has stated about America's neighbor to the south:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Regardless of one's policy position on immigration reform, Trump was wrong to broadly characterize Mexicans as a group of criminals who are bent on spreading their evil ways to the United States.  But I suppose we should be grateful that Trump would be willing to go out on a limb and give the presumption that some good people actually exist in Mexico.  Since when do Americans find it acceptable to label an entire group based upon a stereotype?  

Trump has also made waves by questioning the military service of Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Trump disputed the fact that McCain was a war hero, claiming, "He's not a war hero. ... He's a war hero because he was captured.  I like people who weren't captured."  These statements and others pertaining to McCain's service record in the Vietnam War seem to be ignorant of the fact that McCain endured more than 5 years in a prisoner of war camp, where he passed up opportunities to leave in prisoner exchanges because of military tradition that the prisoners held longest should be released first.  

The antics didn't stop there.  Trump didn't back away from his comments and proceeded to criticize Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as an insignificant candidate in the presidential race, and then gave out Graham's personal cell phone number.  Why?  The only reason to do this would be to unleash a legion of trolls who called and texted Graham, to the point where the senator had to change phone numbers.  Trump also took a moment to denigrate Graham as a 'nobody.' 

During the announcement of his presidential bid, Trump tossed out more than a deli's worth of red meat to his supporters and the media.  One-liners, zingers, and insults were aplenty but like so many presidential candidates, his words lacked any substance.  Trump offered no real solutions to problems, no true agenda.  His words were insults.  Here's an example, when Trump opined about foreign diplomacy and the Iran Nuclear Talks:
I know the smartest negotiators in the world. I know the good ones, I know the bad ones, I know the overrated ones. You got a lot of them that are overrated. They’re not good, they think they are, they get good stories, cause the newspapers get buffaloed. But they’re not good. But I know the best negotiators in the world. I’d put them one for each country. Believe me, folks, we’d do very well.
Trump tells the American public that the United States do not negotiate well because he says we don't.  For someone running as a Washington outsider, he has already mastered the two most dangerous words any politician can utter:  believe me.  

The words a presidential candidate speaks and the way in which they say them do matter.  Trump's statements go beyond crossing the threshold of political correctness.  I think most people admire a person who speaks their mind, but Trump's comments serve only to inflame and intimidate.  The ability to speak one's mind isn't such a powerful trait in a person if their words are toxic. 

Moreover, why is it so appealing that a candidate speaks their mind so freely?  I know plenty of people who speak their mind and should never occupy an elected office.

He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers.  Honest answers are fairly refreshing in politics, but that doesn't make a person electable nor does it mean that a prepared answer is necessarily a bad thing.  

Honest answers really don't hold much meaning if the answer given is a terrible concept or completely unworkable.  Trump noted that he would have a wall built on the border with Mexico, and that the Mexicans would be the nation that would build it.  I'm certain this idea appeals to the GOP base, but could he provide any details about how this will be accomplished?  

Again, Trump may not have held an elected position, but he seems to be adept at adopting political tactics to get elected.  Set a lofty, vague goal and offer no details about how to achieve that goal.  The Trump Campaign's current slogan:  "Make America Great Again!"  The slogan itself attempts to plant the idea that America isn't great.

What exactly are Trump's positions on the issues that concern Americans?  Apparently, he has yet to articulate those because his campaign website,, has yet to list his stances on issues or policy ideas about how to improve the nation.  Incidentally, Trump made it a point to announce how he was independently wealthy and did not need to rely on political contributions.  Yet, his campaign site did have a link encouraging visitors to donate to the campaign.  

When did society decide that being prepared is such a bad thing?  Winning an election to any political office bears a responsibility to the constituents.  A president must consider what policies will fix the problems of a society with more than 300 million citizens.  I expect a president to have ideas and solutions to ease those problems, if not outright eliminate them.  No, this should not be construed to mean that we should expect the president or any official to solve all the nation's problems.  But whomever should hold that position ought to be well-prepared for the task.  

Trump does tout his business acumen as a reason why he would be beneficial to the United States.  Yet, Americans should be cautious in taking this quality too far in the assessment of Trump.  There's a good reason that a businessman has never successfully transitioned to the presidency.  The two jobs aren't nearly as similar as people would like to believe.  Also, the economy is only one part of the presidency, and it isn't even constitutionally mandated to the chief executive as part of the job.  

Americans like a sense of bravado.  People seem to admire Trump because he's somewhat of a cowboy who shoots from the hip.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it fails to hit the target.  In any other profession, would we not desire to have a well-prepared individual?  If I'm undergoing heart surgery, I hope to have a surgeon who knows the procedure and has planned for every conceivable contingency. 

I would imagine that Trump has the best possible intentions in attempting to become the president.  Put those intentions aside, though, and weigh the individual.  Trump has no plan.  He's articulated no positions or concepts about how to improve the nation.  The message from his campaign is that the Obama administration has failed and all the other Republican candidates are bums.  He tells the public everything they want to hear.

The nature of the presidency (and most political positions) is that those in power must be accountable to the entire population.  After the campaign is over and a new president is elected, the task of governing begins.  The idealism of the campaign transitions to pragmatism.  

Trump should ask President Obama how easy it is to deliver on campaign promises.  The task of being president is not the same as a business executive.  The president's power is tempered by the Constitution and the other branches of government.  How would Donald Trump respond when he can't bully Congress or the Supreme Court?  He has already demonstrated his contempt for Democrats and has wrangled the GOP establishment to the point where he, if president, would have alienated both parties.  

Trump isn't good for politics, and it's only a matter of time before Americans see that.  The things you say and the way that you conduct yourself matter in life.  The level of expectation for these things matter more when you're seeking the highest office in the land.  Trump has no plans, no tact, and no shame.