What's All This Then?

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

It’s more than a little hard to reconcile the notion of the United States being the leader of the free word with the traveling circus being presented to the nation and to the world as the best way to select a candidate from the Republican Party to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in November next year. One thing is abundantly clear, no matter which party is trying to select a candidate, our primary system is not the best way to find the best possible person for the job. If it was, we wouldn’t have the current circus atmosphere of one candidate after another being the favorite to win the nomination according to virtually daily opinion polls.

Watching "Question Time in the House" the other night, it occurred to me that if the founding fathers had been able to peer into the future, they probably would have hung onto the non-royal segment of British governance and eschewed the concept of divided government in favor of a parliamentary system. As it is, they’re probably writhing in their graves at the spectacle of presidential primaries masquerading as an intelligent and logical way to select the person who might become the nation’s next chief executive. .

We are being besieged by daily poll numbers to inform us which of the various candidates has surged into the "lead" - as though the search for a candidate was a kind of horse race - or a political version of "Dancing With the Stars." Which candidate will be sent home this week? And this year, early primary states have joined the madness by vying with each other to be the first to produce a caucus or individual vote total to determine who will be the front runner as the actual primary season gets underway. Hopefully, after that first contest, the jetsam of the group will have forcefully been cast aside or voluntarily reduced down to the flotsam of serious candidates - that is, one of the two, perhaps three presidential wannabes that Republicans will hold their noses and anoint as their savior-in-waiting.

It’s interestingly ironic that the unelected head of the Republican party spent months mocking Barack Obama as "The Messiah" - and now it’s Limbaugh’s minions who seem to be searching for someone to lead them to the promised land. Michelle Bachman has played the dual role of pace horse and comedy relief while the true believers waited for the anti-Romney. They found him in the form of Rick Perry, evoking cheers and applause for his stellar record as execution approver nonpareil. But sadly - put to the test of fire, he failed and the search continued. For a while it was clear that the true Messiah was the large one from New Jersey - but again there was gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when he revealed that he had not heard the command from on high. Now he who sings the praises of Pizza - I must admit with a fair to middling baritone - has assumed the role of comic relief and the search goes on.

It’s unlikely that any new contestants will join the fray. For one thing, there probably wouldn’t be enough room for another body in the ridiculous charades that are presented as "debates." Frankly, I’m surprised that the Oxford Union hasn’t filed suit to prevent the use of the word by whoever stages these shows. Certainly you can’t call what goes on at these gabfests debating when the contestants do little more than hurl insults at each other - in between accusing President Obama of being he who opened Pandora’s Box and swallowed the key.

What amuses and at the same time appalls me about such gatherings - and it applies equally to Republicans and Democrats - is that it allows characters to join the battle who would be unlikely to be selected as a standard bearer, even if he or she had no opposition. The Republicans may not all be rocket scientists, but there is no way they would allow a Michelle Bachman or a Ron Paul or Herman Cain to be their candidate. Oh sure, one or the other may win the odd straw poll or even a primary - remember, Republican voters are not rocket scientists - but when push comes to shove or at the end of the day or whatever trite phrase one might apply to such situations, voters and those who do their thinking for them, make sure that a candidate for the presidency is someone who might just stand a chance of being elected.

A final word about the non issues that always creep into Republican contests for a Presidential candidate - and to my mind renders the whole process an insult to the intelligence of thoughtful and knowledgeable Republican voters. You know what they are. Religion and Abortion. There are others, but those are the two that always get the leading candidates involved in one upping each other in who is the more devoted to the true religion or to the sanctity of life in the womb. In a rational world, introducing such topics as relevant to the weighty task of governance should be grounds for instant dismissal from the primary races. Unfortunately, when it comes to such topics, we in this great democracy are as irrational as any dictatorship or theocracy. Sure we don’t stone women to death for adultery or turn a blind eye to "honor" killings - but our candidates for the highest office of the land have to convince "evangelical voters" that they believe as they do and that life begins at conception and that maybe evolution is only a theory and maybe the world isn’t billions of years old and that dinosaurs and humans coexisted just a few thousand years ago.

As I said in my opening thoughts, it’s the sort of thing that sometimes makes you wish we had adopted the English parliamentary system. Not that the leader who would emerge from such a system would be relieved of having to state his beliefs on a variety of topics - but - as in the case of David Cameron, Britain’s current Prime Minister, he’d only have to do it to the 22,765 people of Witney, Oxfordshire. But we have the system that evolved over time from the dream of the founding fathers where history may one day record that the greatest country on earth elected a president who, during his campaign for the office, in one one way or another told voters that he believed that an invisible deity spoke to him and told him what to do and that life begins from the moment a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love and eyes a likely recipient of that emotion.

And all I can say about such a possibility is Lord have mercy upon us. And that plea from this aging atheist will give you an idea of how worried I am that such a thing could happen arising out of our convoluted system for selecting candidates for the office of leader of the free world.

Monday, October 10, 2011

I admit to being somewhat surprised at the outpouring of grief and accolades in response to the news that Steve Jobs had died. No doubt that was because I am not one who has participated in the use of all of the communication and information devices that he and others have created over the years . I do use a computer - obviously - a P.C. - and I own and minimally use a basic cell phone with virtually no bells and whistles. And that is just about the extent of my relationship to the world created by Jobs and his fellow geniuses, whoever they may be.

From all I’ve heard about the man, it seems clear that he was indeed a technically creative genius who died too young - and I agree with those who have been saying that his creations have changed the world we live in. But since I don’t use any of those creations other than the aforementioned computer and phone, I am not really qualified nor do I feel any strong compulsion to join in the world wide chorus of praise for the man and his life’s work. Instead, I thought I would look at his passing from a somewhat different perspective.

There’s no question that technology has changed the world we live in and mostly for the better But there is a price that we pay for each technological step forward and it seems to me that sometimes that price is high enough to make the advances seem a little less worth while.

Today the U.S. Post office is struggling to stay afloat, in some measure due to the severe drop in volume of personal mail. Today, many of us, taking advantage of a convenient technological innovation, use e-mail to keep in touch with family and friends and computers to receive and pay bills. We send "virtual" birthday and other greetings cards without having to shop for the items in a store or putting pen to paper. These are wonderful conveniences and they are eco-friendly, but we pay for them by losing the joy of anticipating the daily arrival of the mail man and opening letters and cards from friends and relatives and reading the written messages on paper that we often could recognize by color and design and sometimes even odor. Those days aren’t completely gone but they are fading fast and I for one cannot nor do I wish to imagine a world without stamps and envelopes and the anticipation of opening and exploring their contents.

Over the years, local book stores began to be squeezed out by the chains - not able to compete with price or advertising. And now the chains are gone or going, one by one, squeezed out by other life changing innovations - books "on line" or on electronic devices where the words of authors can be found and read - a convenience for many - but again at what price? Can one really enjoy sitting in front of a computer or with one of those cold to the touch electronic devices in hand - clicking away or whatever one does to "turn" a page, to the joy of opening the cover of a newly purchased book - glancing through the chapters - maybe even sniffing the cover and the pages - and settling back in a comfortable chair and appropriate light to enter the world of someone’s imagination or expertise without ever having to click? Perhaps one day the world that Steve Jobs and his fellow geniuses have created will have eliminated the need for books that are printed on paper and kept on shelves in homes and libraries. It won’t happen in my lifetime but I have to wonder where generations that follow mine will go to find a signed, first edition of some future classical work of fiction?

Today’s children are growing up more familiar with computers and the various pods and pads they use than with the basics that we old folk learned in our school days. They cannot imagine a time or a life without the innovations that were gifted to them by Jobs and his contemporaries. But I wonder how many of them will master cursive writing or will be capable of writing or want to write with anything other than a keyboard and whether they will ever understand or agree that they have paid a price for the gifts and that that price is the potential loss of something beautiful that may soon be little more than a memory.

I’m sure you’ve been delayed at the check out counter in a supermarket because a UPC code was missing on an item or couldn’t be scanned. You had to wait and the checker had to hold up the line behind you while someone went to find the aisle where the item was shelved and read the price posted there. Most check out clerks at supermarkets couldn’t tell you the price of most items sold in the store. It isn’t a job requirement. It’s replaced by the innovation of the scanner. Who needs to look at and learn the prices of what you’re selling when you can just scan them? Perhaps not that much has been lost by replacing the knowledgeable retail clerk with the check out scanner - but its another example of the increasing substitution of an electronic aid for personal knowledge and ability. I know it’s not directly appropriate since we’re talking about clerks who aren’t personally familiar with prices - but it brings to mind the description of a cynic - one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Maybe we’re moving toward a world where our supermarket clerks will know neither.

There is no way that these thoughts should be interpreted as being disrespectful or unmindful of the creative genius of Steve Jobs. I am as grateful as anyone for the innovations that have made life easier and easier from generation to generation. . Our ancestors may have snorted at our reliance on some of our modern day conveniences but while the ancient outhouse might have added a rustic look to grandpa’s house, I will forever be grateful for indoor plumbing on a thirty below snowy day in December.

Absent a cataclysmic atomic war, the invasion of a predatory alien race or our sun going nova, mankind’s future will be filled with one innovation after another - each obviating the need for some of the things succeeding generations will not be able to believe they could or would want to live without. And that will be the price they will pay for the innovations. The abandonment of those things and perhaps even the memory of what they were.

So as the world celebrates and gives thanks for the life of Steve Jobs, it would serve us well to offer thanks for and celebrate those things that we will be leaving behind and perhaps one day forgotten as the price we pay for the gifts he gave us and for those who follow him will give us.