Is Breaking Up Hard to Do? (National Edition)

Let me first make abundantly clear that what I write here is meant as an invitation to frank conversation, honest debate, and in no way is meant to be a statement of a firm opinion.

You’ve been together for years. You have a great story: an almost fate-led, near mythology to those starry-eyed early days. Those first days, months, even years, were full of passion. A force beyond yourselves pushed you together into a magical bond that nothing could break. Perhaps all of that passion blinded you to a few differences that could cause some issues later, but you’ll deal with that when you come to it. You’ve got your song. You share common values. You have a shared vision for what the future looks like. Perhaps you occasionally argue, but nothing that can’t be worked through when you think of what really matters. To the world, you are strong as one, united together, ready to set forward into forever together.

What if you are a nation? What if you are a united collection of states, initially bound together with a single purpose that influences a common bond of passions, forever leading you into the future as one sovereign entity? After that single galvanizing event brings you together, you settle down the passions and discuss critically what your values are, how they will be laid out, and how they will dictate your future. With any luck, and a whole heck of a lot of continued investment by subsequent generations, you have managed to maintain a national cohesion around those values – struggling at times, of course – always looking forward at how you will stand together for the foreseeable future.

Like any romantic couple, any interpersonal relationship for that matter, its health always needs to include an honest, perhaps brutal, assessment in how you continue to look at the future. Do you still share the same values? Does that spark of passion still ring true? Are the qualities you still have in common strong enough to make the ways in which you may have grown apart seem minor? Or, are you fooling yourself into believing you still have enough to keep you together?

The United States, We the People, need to seriously assess who we are, what we value, and truly question if there is still enough holding us all together to maintain out identity as these United States of America. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we might all see that it is at the very least a valid topic to broach – cautiously. Such an exercise should have two possible conclusions. Either:

  • we are reminded of what brought us together, how strongly we still believes in our common purpose, even if our focus is being constantly distracted by the superficial
  • or we face a very tough reality that portions of our union have grown terminally apart from one another to the point that saving it is an exercise in futility

We have all seen, from the outside, that couple forcing it to work for much longer than they should. Is that who we are now, or do we still have enough to work for?


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A Flag for Everyone: Let’s Own it!

I was driving to school a few days ago when I saw two large trucks traveling ahead of me with large American flags waving proudly in the wind. When I got nearer to the trucks, I was not surprised to see Trump stickers stamped in the center of their back bumpers. I was instantly reminded of the years following 9/11 and on through the heaviest years of the war in Iraq.

My first memory was that of the unity displayed following the attacks which brought down the World Trade Center towers, lodged a gaping hole in the Pentagon, and instantly moved our collective awareness into a new era. During that period, flags popped up all over – on cars, in windows, on trees, on lapels. As a nation, we collectively decided that we were together in our grief, our anger, and in our response. Flag sales spiked higher than ever before.

My next memory was from the days leading up to and in the midst of the Iraq War. Flags became the symbol of support for the war. I was not one of them. I saw it happening. I saw one side of a major issue – one that was more based on political ideology than matters of peace and war should ever be – take ownership of a symbol that belongs to all of us. Waving the flag illustrated that you believed in the war and questioned the patriotism of anyone who dared to take issue with the motivations or the application of it. You stood by George W. Bush without debate. There were moments when it bothered me that those of us on the left ceded our flag, a banner representing freedoms and dignities we hold dear, to one side of an issue. It was and is our damned flag too!

Returning to today, I fear we may be returning to that division. We may be returning to an environment where you are a patriot to stand with the current administration – the incoming Trump Administration – and will wave the flag for all of its glory and history. Anything less is unpatriotic of even um-American.

I want to qualify what I am about to say next by stating that I have a strong belief that asking permission or for social acceptance for the proper and inoffensive form of protest is not a protest at all, but a meaningless social transaction. I’m not sure I would ever express myself by stepping on or burning the flag, but I strongly support the right of those who do. This is a symbol heavily linked to freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Many of those who protest in this way are saying quite forcefully that they do not believe they are enjoying the same level of those freedoms, that the opportunities which should be available to them are not. To many, this form of protest is abhorrent…but it gets your attention. If you are more worried about the fabric of a flag than the fabric of our system, please reconsider what you believe that flag stands for. Protest is meant to grab your attention. Unfortunately, too many focus on the act rather than the motivations behind it. Not enough people look at the act and consider what could be so distressing to a person burning the flag that they believe this is how they must respond to get some attention placed on their plight.

This gets me to my point: as much as burning the flag makes a statement, it also serves to reinforce my previous observation – the idea that the flag belongs to one ideology. I want to suggest that we not allow that to happen this time. The flag and all that it symbolizes should not again be ceded to those who will seek to enforce a biased sense of patriotism based on an adherence to their worldview. The flag, like our country, belongs to all of us. The freedoms and sense of dignity our founding fathers – while not perfect in living those values – conceived of, these principles are the property of all, not of a single ideology.

By all means, burn the flag if this is how you need to make your statement. Want to make an even stronger statement? Own that flag and all that comes with it! Wave it as you protest! Wave it as you march through the streets demanding that your rights not be trampled on. Wave it as you question policies that seek to divide us against one another. Don’t let your oppressors once again take it and let it only serve to symbolize their perspective. Wave it like it is yours. It is!

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National Coming Out Day – 2014

It is National Coming Out Day. In my opinion, this is not simply about reiterating what most people may already know about many of us, but also about creating and enlarging a space of comfort and safety for those who still struggle to understand themselves – to say nothing for hoping to help others to understand them. This is complex because everyone’s environment – on both macro and micro levels – varies so greatly that we cannot juxtapose our own experience onto the life of another person. I was extremely fortunate and blessed that while I did experience questions and concerns from my own circle, I never had to doubt that there was always love, compassion, and respect. That was 17 years ago. It’s a much different world from even a few years ago, let alone 17 years ago, let alone a 35 years ago when I was born. Even in the time since I was willing to make this peace with myself – a greater struggle than telling anyone else – my understanding has drastically altered. The binary that can be so easy to refer to, with a single middle ground, is not really as cut and dry as many would like to think. There was no switch; there was just recognition. It is not not a set of distinct plot points on an axis with easy labels and definitions; it is a continuum that is anything but static. The more readily that fact is understood and respected, the more easily people will begin to accept not just others but perhaps their own ever-changing continuum. Just as my own relationship with another man does not mean I need to fear the occasional recognition that a woman may appeal to me (Emma Watson perhaps), so too a “straight” person need not fear a fleeting appreciation for one of their gender identity, or anything in between for that matter. Coming out should not be looked on as a single act of declaring just one of the many characteristics that make us human. It should be a state of mind. Sociologists are always working to understand more how people relate to one another. However, this should be a reasonable endeavor for everyone to take on.

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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 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.
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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