On Struggle…and Robin Williams

Among the many details featured in media coverage about the life of Robin Williams is the fact that he was voted least likely to succeed in high school. I’ve seen a few comments that express surprise about this fact. How did his classmates get it so wrong? I say this is no surprise at all. The most tormented of people tend to be the most gifted of artists. This high school label – a poor message to send someone out into the world with – tends to find itself branded on the social outcasts. It is likely that the qualities which led his classmates to label him as such are the same that fueled his talent. It’s not surprising because this kind of talent is not really acting. It is real and honest because personal struggle develops the most intimate understanding of the human experience. Today, those same classmates may remember things differently because their perspective is biased by the years since.
I’m no Robin Williams, but I get it. A few days ago, I received a marketing email from classmates.com informing me that an unknown classmate remembers me as ambitious. I’m not a paying member, so I don’t know who it is. The tease is an effort to get me to pay. My first reaction is confusion. No, they do not remember me as ambitious. What they see is who I am striving to be today, and using that image as a translucent layer to modify the memory of me in high school. I was awkward, reserved, and emotionally stunted. I was a student getting A’s and B’s until midway through high school when the allure of the larger social life I barely had to that point caused me to make some poor decisions, and I only graduated high school on time with the help of night classes during my senior year. I couldn’t be remembered as ambitious because I am surprised I am barely remembered at all.
Now, this is not meant as a pity party. I am proud of what I am accomplishing today and I appreciate my struggles because I believe they keep me grounded in the face of today’s successes. I respect struggle.
So did Robin Williams. He made people laugh because he wanted to laugh. He played struggle well because he knew struggle and pain.
Rightfully, many point out that people leave us every day due to personal struggles and they do not get the attention that celebrities get. It’s fair.
I think that a part of it is that in death, it is one of the rare moments that most average people can truly identify with them as just as human as themselves. It’s good to relate because it brings us together. The key is not to throw attention their way simply because they made some movies we liked, but because they draw attention to lives the rest of us are living. God speed to Robin Williams, and to the rest of us living the daily struggles quietly away from the lights of the cameras.

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Flip flops are for beaches. Let’s keep them there.

It is 2004 when the campaign of George W. Bush produces ads portraying his challenger, Senator John Kerry, as a flip flopper on important issues. I can still recall a deep voice in my head saying “flip flop, flop flip” in an ad that ends with a clip of Senator Kerry declaring, “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The declaration was in regards to an appropriation bill to fund the Iraq War. Many things haunted his campaign that year, including having a thoroughly uninspiring candidacy for a base that was looking to be inspired. That attack was among the most damning.

There is a school of thought in electoral politics that says anything and everything coming out of your campaign must stick to the message. When executed with the utmost discipline, it can be largely successful. But, in the case of Mr. Kerry, attacks that put everything you are working for at risk should not be ignored. Although there was a tepid attempt at addressing the attack, the label stuck and the rest is history.

We see this attack leveled against elected officials on a regular basis. It is utilized in races from Presidential on down to mayoral and city council. I don’t doubt that there are examples where a change of opinion comes purely from a place of political expediency. Candidates want to win and turning a blind eye to inner reservations for the sake of a few extra votes is nothing new.

However, I believe that these attacks are unfair in most situations and plant an easy label when individual situations often have much more complex details. It is the bumper sticker caricature that fails to recognize honest changes that happen with new knowledge, deeper understanding, or even simple evolution in perspective that every human being is entitled to. I should hope that we all allow ourselves the right to be moved as a fundamental part of growth and maturity.

I am not talking about retreating from calling those out who appear to take a vastly different approach than before without any real sense to be made as to why. Accountability is a paramount principle in public service. What I am saying is that we need to not be so easily influenced by this attack without considering the factors behind it. Seeking an easy way to turn voters against your opponent is understandable. You want to give people a reason to choose you over them, or at least make them reconsider supporting your opponent. My concern is that it does a disservice to the process. There is an environment in which fearful politicians find that it is politically better to be confidently wrong than to be perceived as a flip flopper. Most of us would call sticking to one position as being principled, and it is if you truly continue to believe in the same position. Standing on principle does not mean standing against reason when facts you know change or you develop a deeper understanding which alters your perspective. It is the principled leader of good character that is willing to admit they may have been wrong or at least not entirely informed when they took an earlier position. It is the reasonable, well informed electorate that can accept this as a part of the human experience.

Candidates for office need to be less afraid to grow as leaders and set themselves as examples for others to follow. They also need to be more prepared to explain themselves by addressing where a change in position grew from, and accept that it is better for people to disagree with your reasoning than to leave them in the dark. Voters must also attempt to refrain from accepting an easy label made by those whose motivation is simple — winning an election. We all know that very few situations in this life are as simple as they are made out to be. Governing is far from simple and as complex as anything in life can be.

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Principles and actions

Like many Americans, I have found myself in conflict over how I feel about the actions taken by Edward Snowden. A poll discussed today on the news shows that 74 percent of Americans view him as a whistleblower, and not as a traitor. I can understand the sentiment behind that kind of opinion. In this country, we value our privacy. We have an inherent distrust of any government actions taken without our knowledge. We champion those with the courage to put their own livelihood on the line to bring to light what they believe is too important to be left in the dark. That poll, the survey showing the 74 percent recorded as believing Mr. Snowden is one of those champions for transparency, is a snapshot of how principled actions are seen.

I believe that snapshot is too general and fails to dissect the details of the situation. I also believe that, knowing how much I personally have been conflicted,  the poll misses an analysis of how strongly people feel, how sure they are of their opinion, and why people see him in that light. Do they believe in the concept of a whistleblower in general and believe in any actions that bring out truth? Do they know what actions he took since his release of information? Are they able to separate their disdain for government intrusion with the specifics of this situation?

Here is how I see it. I am all for anyone standing up and saying “I know this, I believe it is wrong to keep it quiet, and here is what you all should know!” When a corporate employee at Bank of America knows of institutional issues that are unethical and possibly illegal, by all means, let it out. However, you do not take what you know and run to Wells Fargo, or TD Bank, or Citizens. You don’t run with the information and tell others players in your industry.

In the case of Edward Snowden, you don’t run to China or Russia and tell them what you know. Yes, he began by giving information to the press. An article in the Guardian first gave us a peek into a government program where phone records — not wiretapping and recording of actual phone calls, mind you — were being collected for comparison and flagging. I’m still on the fence about this program, to be honest. But that will require further consideration. My issue with him is that what he did next was flee to countries that are not among the most friendly with the United States, begged for protection while proclaiming he had juicy information, and touted himself as a defender of American principles.

Here is America, we believe in transparency, in courage of convictions, in a press willing to report without fear of retaliation, in singular Americans loving their country more than they love their government.

Here is America, you get to call yourself a whistleblower when you fight for more transparency, display courage of your convictions, work with and for a press willing to report without fear of retaliation, when you love your country more than your government.

Here in America, I call you a traitor when you use those principles and give away what you know to another country halfway around the world. I believe in transparency and standing up against overreach by our government, but I don’t excuse using that belief as a reason for turning against the country you proclaim to be standing up for.

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The slow, sad implosion of the U.S. Congress

I just finished watching a Daily Show segment in which they talked to a Democrat in California who had been approached by the national party about running for a U.S. House seat. She turned them down, feeling that her desire to be productive and successfully represent her community would be stifled by such a role. To use her words, “I don’t want to be in a place where I have a good, fancy title but I’m not actually able to deliver for people.” The story continued by highlighting a current House member that characterized his experience with words like gridlock, sad, frustrating, etc. He explained that he serves under House leadership that was more concerned with getting the best of the other party to stay in the majority than actually getting things done.

With this kind of environment, what idealistic up-and-coming future leader of this country would want to be a part of it? Congress — where good ideals go to die and good public servants lose their way or give up in frustration. One problem I have observed in the course of seeing how these people conduct themselves, these servants elected to represent the best interests of the American people, is how they treat the deal makers. These are the mavericks, the gentleman from Arizona willing to reach across the aisle, the Congresswoman from Maine searching out room for compromise, the Senator from Connecticut finding a working partner with another even though he may not share the same letter in between two parentheses. They are both celebrated and vilified.
The problem is that establishment party insiders turn their backs on their own members that seek out solutions with the opposition, but congratulate and welcome with open arms an opposition player coming their way. It happens on all ends of the spectrum.

How can we expect good people with hopeful intentions to want to take on important roles if it means toeing the line or towing your career away? It is the height of hypocrisy that Republicans pushed Arlen Specter out for occasionally disagreeing with their public platform, but welcomed Joseph Lieberman to their convention as a man of principle. For the Democrats, it was the exact same two men and the exact same hypocrisy — minus the convention invitation.

The Daily Show is satire, but our history is marked by the humor of satire managing to bring out serious points. The story made a valid point, and the solution is not easy. It requires a big shift in how the parties conduct themselves, a large swelling of new candidates willing to stand firm against the attitude that says play like we play or you won’t get far, and an American public willing to give them the support they need to stay courageous and keep fighting for a D.C. worthy of our support again. Principled leadership does not require dogmatic obstructionism. Unfortunately, not enough are willing to recognize that.

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Different Perspectives Versus Evil Intentions

It is no secret that our political atmosphere feeds off of divisiveness and inflammatory statements. The loudmouth gets the attention. Whether or not we need to accept this as a fact that will always be is a subject matter for another day. Overwhelmingly, most voters find this environment to be a big problem. Unfortunately, most voters are also highly likely to respond to the same political tactics they claim to despise. One problem is that it is dirty when the other guys are doing it, but it is simply truth telling when our own team plays the game.

What I truly have a big problem with is the assigning of ill intentions behind the actions or policies we disagree with. People on all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of it. To the conservative, a liberal wants to take all of the money from hard working Americans and give it away so that the poorest do not feel compelled to add to society. The evil liberals hate innovation, hard work, and good ole’ American values where everyone can be vastly successful by simply pulling up their bootstraps and getting a job. To the conservative, it’s not that the liberal simply has a different perspective on what is the best way to help everyone live the American dream, it’s that they hate American values and hate the rich and the successful.

To the liberal, the conservative wants to hoard all of the money and has no interest in caring for those who fall through the cracks. The conservative hates minorities, want to see their rich friends make more and more money, and only see the working class and the poor as commodities to be exploited until they die — there will always be more having babies to keep the cycle going. To the liberal, it’s not that the conservative may simply have a different perspective on how best to make the decisions that will benefit our future, it’s that they only care about their own interests and everyone else be damned.

And we all feed on it. Pundits encourage this attitude. The media gives the most vile examples of so-called “leaders” the most attention. And we emulate it by repeating what we hear without any attempts to verify what is claimed to be fact, and repeating the personal attacks about the caricatures created in the place of the the flesh and blood human beings putting themselves out there as public servants.

The liberal wants to see the government take away everyone’s guns because they hate the Constitution. It certainly couldn’t be that too many tragedies have lead to a desire to evaluate what can be done and what the causes are.

The conservative wants to be able to own whatever weapon they please and collateral damage in our society be damned. It certainly couldn’t be an honest concern that the taking of rights can be a slippery slope.

None of these points are meant to express that the perspectives are the proper way to move forward. That is why honest, respectful, reasoned debate is what we need more than ever, and what is painfully lacking. The first step is facing someone you disagree with with respect and an honest expectation that they come from a point of real desire to see their community and their country served best. You may differ on what that path looks like — and we need disagreement to keep extremes in check. However, assuming the worst of intentions are behind their ideas is not productive. It is not mature. It is not how we get past an environment where the opposition is treated like the enemy.

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Politicians Are People Too

Some popular sentiments are so commonly expressed that it is often too easy to just repeat them without considering the extended impact. This is how I feel when I see a Facebook post, a blog comment, or a comment in the stream of a news story regarding the perceived lack of respect for all politicians.

First, let me start by saying that skepticism for the mainstream political establishment is fair, healthy, and warranted. We should all want the best people with the right intentions representing our best interests. Often, we should and do disagree on what our best interests are — but that’s open democracy. What we should desire are political leaders that fight for those best interests with thoughtfulness and integrity. Our skepticism comes from very public examples where that example is not being illustrated.

What is missed are the countless number of people who have done the good work of the people but aren’t in the public eye. The countless number of people who work today for those they represent in states, counties, Congressional or Statehouse districts, and on down to village ward council members. Some have public name recognition, but most are known only to the small segment of people they represent. The overwhelming majority seek out those roles because they care enough about their communities to put themselves out there.

There should be a difference between holding our elected leaders up to a high standard, and simply trashing them all because some have been engaged in dishonest, unethical, or selfish activities. It is a real problem when we elect people to represent us and they use that role to benefit their own interests. What we should avoid is painting an entire profession with the same brush and deciding for ourselves that anyone holding an elected post is inherently a crook, a puppet, or anything less than an actual human being. What we should do is encourage good people to get involved and pay more attention instead of less. Cynically throwing our hands up in frustration is easy, but the resulting apathy only allows the pervasive cycle to continue where the lowest common denominator of public servants keep their jobs.

I admit that there is a personal motivation behind this post. I have friends who are good public servants and truly believe in the work they do and care about the people and communities they serve. Although I can’t say for sure that my future will include an elected office, my ambitions include public service in some way. It is not because I want to be some famed politician or historic statesman. It is because my past has given me the experience and the drive to do for others. I am choosing that direction knowing what the public sentiment is. All others have done the same.

Next time you are tempted to exclaim how they’re all crooks, they’re good-for-nothing, or they don’t give a damn about average people, stop yourself and consider if you are doing more harm than good by expressing such hostile terms for an entire group of people. Most are or have been average citizens at one time, and chose to get involved because they did indeed give a damn. Again, it is easy to get frustrated and only see through a single lens because the worst examples do tend to get the most attention. However, choosing to seek the path of public service is just that, a path of service to the public. How many good people will continue pursuing that path if it means being devalued as a human being by the people they wish to serve?

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Gun Control

There is a photo circulating around Facebook that shows a major vehicle collision. Above the picture are the words, “WE DON’T BLAME CARS FOR DRUNK DRIVERS.” It is stated below the picture, “WHY BLAME GUNS FOR VIOLENT PEOPLE.”

Besides the obviously missing question mark at the end of the second sentence, here is the problem with this argument:

Yes, it is true that we do not blame cars for drunk drivers. We also DO NOT blame guns for violent people.
HOWEVER….
This analogy is full of Swiss cheese holes.
Cars can become weapons when used poorly, but we use cars for a variety of reasons such as transportation to Grandma’s house, getting to work, taking the kids to Disney World. They provide a function that encompasses social, economical, and recreational capacities. We also have a series of regulations in place to limit dangerous use of vehicles. Those who have shown that they cannot use them responsibly have the legal right to use them taken away. We register people who use them and we register the vehicles. We regulate the speed at which they can be driven. We regulate safety devices to make them safer. We know that the series of regulations will not prevent the wrong person from using them unsafely, but we accept the regulations and driving laws because we accept that having some common sense in our regulation of them has a limiting effect on what can go wrong with them.
Guns are ENTIRELY for purposes of killing. Yes, they can be used effectively to put some meat on the table, as a deterrent to the man breaking into your house in the middle of the night, or as a protection for those who are charged with leading or serving society. Their purpose is ONLY as an instrument of injury or death though. Yes, no amount of regulation will deter the wrong person from using them unsafely, but we should accept that having some common sense in our regulation of them can have a limiting effect on what can go wrong with them.
Why is it that we can all accept that speed limits can be a good thing but that limits on how much ammunition you can shoot is controversial? Why is it that we are not all allowed to have a military tank in our driveways or a working, loaded cannon in our yards?
So, keep using your silly analogies for a variety of other machines we use in our lives that can also harm people. They all serve and are designed for other purposes. They kill when used the wrong way. Guns kill when used the way they are designed to be used.

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On Voting for the Romney/Ryan Ticket

You tell me that I should make the choice of changing leaders this November and support a new “direction.” What direction is it you’re asking me to go in again?

First, on a personal note, I have a President who respects my desire to marry the man I love, to share my life, my financial future, my (God forbid) hospital room, and then there’s the duo that wants to advance the notion that I am one of this nation’s problems, and that they somehow know more about what exists in my heart than I do.

I have a President who believes that I should have the chance to continue my education. I am a proud college student with principles, motivations, and values that I want help my community and world with. The access to that education through grants, scholarships, low interest college loans, and debt forgiveness is an access to personal competitiveness in society, and national competitiveness in the world. Then there’s the duo wants to limit and reduce access to that education by reducing investment in it. Borrow it from your parents, they say. Never mind the fact that an increase in college graduates increases the chance of success for the army of entrepreneurs they express to be fighting for so adamantly.

I have a President who worked hard and spent a great deal of political capital on advancing health care for all. It isn’t perfect, but improvement is always a work in progress and progress only comes from stepping into the dirt and pushing in the shovel for the first time, a process harmed by obstinate attitudes and falsehoods. Then there’s the duo who supported this cause when it was their own idea, but now wants to go backwards to a time when people could suffer pain in their lives and even die from causes that could be treated, but could not get access to that treatment. They say replace it, but they don’t seem interested in expressing any solid details on their plans to fix the nation’s health care environment that was broken to the point of creating an imminent danger to our economy and security. Consequently, this duo talks a good talk about national debt when lack of insurance adds to that debt due to uncovered people in emergency rooms. They detest the fake boogie man labeled the government bureaucrat making health care decisions, but have no issue with the corporate bureaucrat making health care decisions. Which bureaucrat do you want, the one who has to contend with the voting public or the one who is primarily motivated by the profit margins of stock holders?

I have a President whose 4 years in office have been marked by exploding profits and stock values for the companies that lost so much, and laid off so many before he took office. These companies are the ones not hiring, even though they face a business environment that has never been better. Then there’s this duo that wants to reward those companies with more tax cuts, with the notion that this will encourage them to hire people, even though this philosophy has been proven to not work. The loss of national income will be paid for by reducing investment in the living, breathing people of this country so that companies that ship jobs overseas can be invested in.

So, explain to me what choice it is that I have this November? I am to vote against my own self-interests and the interests of the people and communities that I care about. I am to take my vote and choose a President and a party that has boldly and unashamedly sought every chance to barricade any progress? I am to take my vote and choose those whose strategy of obstruction was set on day 1. I am to choose a party who had no issue with expressing that their main motivation was not helping the people of this country, but winning back the seat of the Presidency. Please, tell me what choice it is you are asking me to make, because it looks me to that you are asking me to be a fool!

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Congressional Salary — The Misguided Cause

I have observed a graphic going around that expresses the sentiment stating “Pay Congress Minimum Wage.” I feel the need to respond to this. The problem is not the wage earned by Congress, it is the money they must raise to run for office, and run for re-election. It is the overwhelming cost of being considered a viable candidate, leading men and women who begin with good intentions and the desire to be honest public servants toward the interests of those who can finance their campaigns. Worse now due to certain court decisions, they must now have enough money to fight against unlimited funds that can be used against them by the almighty Super-PACs. A good person sees a set of issues that tug on one’s passion to serve. They are then faced with proving themselves — not primarily with the ideas or values that spark the fire in their soul — but with the judgement of how much of a financial “war-chest” they can manage to build. Perhaps the fire exuded is enough to earn them a place in a small state Legislature, but the moment they begin to look like the elected official that got there on the merit of their message, the special interests (on both sides) that don’t like to see things shaken up begin their assault, and the only defense in today’s environment is enough money to fight it.
No, the wage of Congress is not the issue. Honestly, I would prefer that the people we elect to make the big decisions be paid enough by the people they represent so that they can focus on their jobs instead of the minimum wage they earn. Not to mention, minimum wage for Congress would mean that only those that have enough wealth to not have their Congressional salary be an issue already would run for Congress, forcing out anyone who cares enough to want to run but can’t afford to live on that wage.
The issue is easy access for wealthy donors. The issue is the idea that money is speech. Freedom of speech is shredded when those with more in the bank are given more “speech.” When you make the speech of one person more valuable than another, that freedom ceases to be the free speech written into our Constitution.
I appreciate the sentiment that goes into such a statement “Pay Congre$$ Minimum Wage.” We want our elected officials to have a grasp on the livelihoods of average working Americans. Paying them a lower salary would only result in exasperating an already troubled system where too many big money interests control the votes.

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Business Success = Political Success?

I fail to see how having been a business owner translates into having the right skills to lead a country. Sure, the experience likely has some effect on your economic knowledge, but it is one facet among many — and that experience isn’t necessarily a plus depending on what kind of success was achieved, and how. A business, for the most part, provides products or services with an interest in making profits. A businessman would make a fine advisor for economic issues, but a President should be someone who takes into account more variables than running a country like a CEO would entail. I, for one, don’t want a President with a businessman’s perspective. I want a President who considers policy based on the benefit to the society as a whole, with economic success being one. With national wealth steadily becoming more centralized to a few, too many are not benefiting from our so-called status as the richest nation on Earth. We need priorities that aren’t simply about helping business owners save more money — at the expense of public safety, health, or to the detriment of everyone else.

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July 9, 2012 · 7:30 pm