Archive for October 2009

Intelligence Is Overrated

October 29, 2009

The Coen Brothers, a multi-Oscar winning pair of neurotic and irreverent Hollywood filmmakers, made a so-so film in 2008 called “Burn After Reading” where the tagline was “Intelligence is Relative.”

The film deals with a CIA agent played by John Malkovich whose personal memoirs contained in a disk are accidentally discovered by two dimwitted gym trainers played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. Though the film itself lacks the usual panache we have come to expect from Joel and Ethan Coen, the story is supposed to satirize the U.S. intelligence community and how everyday idiots can become bigger threats to national security than terrorists.

This film and Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film “The Informant!” are both spoofs of the ineptitude of government agents and the people who are in power in our country. One would think the smartest people in our society would be the ones in power, but that is not always the case.

The general American public would argue that our previous president, George W. Bush, was not the brightest bulb in the drawer despite reaching the office of President of the United States. He only became Commander in Chief because of his family name (his pappy was once the Prez as well) and the very nice Supreme Court who ruled controversial ballots in his favor over his challenger, Al Gore.

In our current administration, several Obama cabinet and lower cabinet members had trouble paying their taxes. This is especially ironic considering Democrats are traditionally the ones who favor higher taxes over lower ones. This goes to show that everyone is capable of either being stupid or ignoring the law.

But indeed it does make one wonder who really is in charge of our country. Do we actually have the smartest people in high public offices; or do we have bumbling idiots whom enough folks were gullible enough to vote for?

Then again, sometimes you had no choice who to vote for. I don’t think too many Americans were enthusiastic about either Bush or Gore, or even John Kerry for that matter. This past election, where we had a choice between a charismatic African American and a well-respected Vietnam War veteran, was one of the first elections in a while where the person, not the party, counted more.

All this shows that perhaps the best people aren’t the ones who are in positions of power. Politics and the art of governing a country are often times two very different monsters. Politics is show, theatre, intrigue, social networking. Governing a country is an intellectual task that requires knowledge of history, economics, mathematics, political theory, and multi-cultural understanding.

Those who want to enter politics are often in it for a variety of reasons. Some want to genuinely change the country (or city, or county, or state) for the better, others are in it for the fame/money/reputation, and some people might be in it for no other reason other than it seems like the right thing to do.

Those who get elected aren’t necessarily the ones with the best ideas. They are the ones who seem the most trustworthy, kind, patriotic, charismatic, and/or partisan. If you live in a hardcore red or blue state, you better feed the base or you will have no chance of collecting votes.

I have always believed that the real people who are qualified to be president, or senator, or any high public office, are usually in academia. They are law professors, college professors, or political scientists working for a think tank. They could even be journalists who have studied politics for a long length of time. Either way, people who understand politics, international relations, and history at a deeper level.

This is not to say that our current elected leaders do not have that expertise. Barack Obama was a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Most of our other leaders have university degrees in political science, international studies, or law. I am not implying that Washington D.C. is full of nothing but power hungry dunderheads, though sometimes that assumption is tempting to make.

But there is somewhat of a backlash against intellectualism. Obama and Hillary Clinton were accused of being “elitists” who couldn’t relate to the everyday working man or woman. This explains why Obama tried to go bowling (and failed miserably) and Hillary was seen at a tavern chasing down brewskis. Republicans already have the “good old boy” reputation down solid, so it’s the Dems who need “work” in that area.

Some people think politicians who are overtly smart and intelligent are prone to ignore the everyday “Joe Six Pack” and their common problems. Others feel we need the best and brightest running our country, not those who can best identify with the little people.

Intelligence may be relative, but there will always be a place for smart people. Smart people assist in improving technology, science, medicine, the arts, and any other kind of research that helps society become better. When it comes to running a country, that might be a whole other story.

How much of politics is scientific and how much of it is an art? That might come down to whether you value book or street smarts more. There might be something said for the classic debate between intelligence and wisdom. A wise person is not necessarily the smartest one in the room. They are the ones with the most insight, sensitivity, life experience, and observational power. Intelligence is something that cannot be learned.

But can wisdom be learned? Or does it come more natural to some people compared to others? We assume that wise people make the best decisions in life, but what about intelligent folks? How, for example, did the Kennedy administration get us into the colossal blunder that was the Vietnam War when everyday military grunts on the ground knew all along this would be a mistake? There must be something said for proximity to the problem.

 All these questions can boggle the mind. Maybe we need intelligent people to answer them.

Every Writer Needs an Editor, Every Actor Needs a Director, Every President Needs a Critic

October 20, 2009

What is the best way to criticize our government?

If it is true that in order for a successful democracy to function, the people must always question the actions of the government, how exactly does one go about doing that?

I say this because we have a president now who is popular with a certain portion of the population and unpopular with the other. Barack Obama, elected under promises of “hope” and “change,” enjoys support from liberals and moderates and hostility from those on the right. These are rough generalizations, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions all around.

Those on the left hope Obama will increase the size of the federal government as a way to combat our nation’s problems. Universal healthcare (or something resembling that), bailouts of failing banks, federal stimulus packages, and increasing federal funding for several programs including alternative energy are all ways Democrats hope to better serve the nation.

There are plenty of voices on the right, both in Congress and in the media, who disagree with this style of governance. They don’t just disagree with it, they hate it. They hate it so much they will call our president anything from “Hitler” to a “socialist” to a “Communist.” Communist?  That’s an insult that was thought to be as extinct as McCarthyism.

But name calling aside; there are other voices other than Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity who have issues with the current administration’s way of handling both domestic and foreign affairs.

But those voices are never talked about amid the screaming and shouting of those in talk radio, right-leaning blogs, and the infamous Fox News. They seem to be getting all the press these days. A year after the exciting election of America’s first African American president has seen nothing but hate, disdain, and bitterness from those on both sides of the aisle.

But why? Why are the media (especially the liberal media) giving these loud mouthed blowhards so much free publicity? Why is Bill O’Reilly’s face currently on the front page of Slate.com? Why are so many liberal commentators like Leonard Pitts, Jr. and Keith Olbermann spending almost all their precious time complaining about neo-conservatives when they are no longer in any positions of power?

For our supposed new era of “Hope and Change,” we are seeing a significant amount of bitterness from the left. They are right to be upset at how loud and obnoxious far right conservatives are being right now. But don’t they have the smarts to know that if they keep on battling with them night after night; America may soon get disenfranchised with them too?

But that is a whole other discussion. For now, people in the “loyal opposition” need to know the best way to criticize their government, which brings us to the original question. Is screaming at your opponents and calling them derogatory names going to make much of a difference? So far, it has, and it has not.

There were enough folks convinced about “death panels” and all other sorts of horror stories regarding Obama’s health reform proposals. Those series of disastrous town hall meetings held over the summer became shouting matches instead of intelligent discussions. This was caused by fear-baiting instigated by right winged media figures who want nothing more than to see Obama fail. The spiteful name “Obamacare” should be a good indication of that attitude.

So it seems that for those on the right, the right way to criticize your government is to be civil about it and learn as much as you can about the actual issues being discussed, not talking points established by voices on the radio. No one will even consider talking to you if all you do is shout, scream, and wildly flail your arms in the air.

But what about those on the left? How should they take criticism? There are a couple of answers to this. The first is to realize that not every critic of Obama is a gun-toting, Bible-thumping, homophobic, racist, fascist right winger. There are those on the left who feel that Obama is not taking reform far enough and fear our current woes could come back later in the future unless more rigid regulations are placed on certain businesses.

There are liberals like The New York Times’ Paul Krugman who feels that Obama needs to spend more money, not less, to get us out of the recession. One round of stimulus spending is not sufficient to combat unemployment and the collapsed financial system. More spending should be on the way, regardless of what it does to the federal deficit.

And there are intelligent conservatives like David Brooks and George Will who are far from fear mongering “birthers” and bigots. They hold on to conservative principals without becoming too militaristic or angry. Unlike Rush or Bill O, they argue from logic, reason, and facts instead of emotion, half truths, and flat out lies. They are the type of oppositional voices that President Obama and our current Congress need, not fringe lunatics.

One should not forget about the millions of Americans (and for that matter, those around the world) who fell in love with Obama and think he can do no wrong. Monsieur Barack had plenty of fans who loved his charisma, promises, and personal story that carried him to election victory over the old and unflattering John McCain.

Those who think Obama is one step below Jesus need to realize that criticism is necessary in order for a presidency to succeed. Abraham Lincoln, arguably one of our greatest presidents ever, famously appointed a “team of rivals” to his cabinet. Lincoln appointed William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates to his cabinet despite all of them being former opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860. Despite disharmony, internal fighting, and contempt for their boss, these men helped Lincoln reunite a fragmented America and end the inhumane institution of slavery.

This is why Obama fanatics should not be scared about criticisms heaped upon their political savior. In fact, GOP input in writing up the healthcare bills have made them stronger and more likely to pass both the House and Senate.

The best way to criticize our government, you may ask? Beside civility and intelligence, humility should also be added to our list. No one is perfect, and we should be willing to acknowledge that. If the right can clean up their act and treat everyone as adults (including themselves), the left should respond by welcoming oppositional ideas and taking them seriously. If the Bush team had done that 8 years ago, do you think we would be in the messes that we are now?

Not everyone who criticizes our president is a racist who “cannot stand seeing a black man in the White House,” a phrase used by many Obama supporters to counter the harsh treatment from the right. At the end of the day, sometimes politics is more important than race. And sometimes we see racist smears where none exist (I may not may not be talking about Jimmy Carter).

Playing the race card does nothing to get foes to the negotiating table. Neither does bigotry, name calling, and paying attention to half the truth. But all these ideas have been shared before by many other people in previous times. But I think we should all be reminded of this every once in a while.

Those JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories May Not Be So Crazy After All

October 19, 2009

On November 22, 1963, something happened in Dallas that would haunt the American psyche for generations to come.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was gunned down in a motorcade in the heart of Dallas, Texas by an assassin’s bullet. He was later pronounced dead and was immediately replaced by then Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine and apparent defector, was charged with Kennedy’s murder. He was later gunned down by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner who had shady connections with the Italian mafia. The Warren Commission, a federal investigation panel appointed by President Johnson to look into the assassination, deemed Oswald to be a “lone nut” who acted alone in slaying Kennedy.

These are the established “official” facts. Anything beyond this depends on your predisposition to believe any of the conspiracy theories that have been circulated over the years.

The New York Times recently reported that the CIA is still resistant to releasing documents from the early 1960s that could possibly shed some light on the assassination. If you believe the Warren Commission, Oswald was a “lone nut” who acted alone under no orders. If you believe Oliver Stone, an Oscar winning filmmaker whose controversial 1991 film “JFK” brought almost every major conspiracy theory into the public light, Oswald was anything but a lone wolf out to put his name in the history books.

The JFK assassination has been discussed many times before in the nearly 66 years that have passed since it happened. The image of John Kennedy Jr. saluting his dead father as his body was carried past him will forever be ingrained in our collective memories. It is not hard to view these conspiracy nuts as insensitive paranoid jerks that refuse to bury the past.

However, “conspiracy buffs” will argue that it is the rest of us who need to wake up. If we are so naïve to believe that it is impossible for our own president to be killed by means of conspiracy and deception, then we need to get out more. America may be the most free and democratic nation in the world, but we in no way immune to government/military corruption.

We all know that politicians sell their souls to special interest groups, corporations, and religious organizations in order to get their votes. We all know the military will cover up any scandal if it puts them in a bad light (My Lai massacre, anyone?). We should all be aware that during the Cold War, the CIA was doing things so secret even they probably had no idea what they were doing. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone.

It has been reported that shortly after 9/11, the CIA secretly authorized for top secret assassination teams to travel around the world killing al Qaeda leaders in retaliation for the attacks. This should sound familiar to anyone who knows about the “Wrath of God” operation set up by Mossad to kill Palestinians linked to the Black September terrorist group after the murders of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Though the CIA supposedly cancelled the al Qaeda assassination plan before it could begin, it is not a stretch to imagine that this practice is nothing new.

So what does this all mean? That the CIA really did kill Kennedy? And for what reason? Because he refused to support the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which sought to remove Fidel Castro from power? Or perhaps it’s because he was soft on the Soviets after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and allowed them to swallow up more nations to Communism. Or maybe because he didn’t want to play ball in Vietnam. All of these theories have been spread around.

To be completely serious and objective, we can never know for sure until all these secretive documents have been released to the public. The government claims they contain top secret information that could jeopardize our national security if they are leaked. Even though the Cold War is long over, apparently our new enemies in the Middle East can catch on and learn something valuable if they got their hands on them.

What we do know for sure is that all options should be put on the table. It’s not unpatriotic to believe that our own government would kill our own Commander in Chief. The 1960s were a rough time in U.S. history. The paranoia of the Cold War during the 1950s had us seeing Communism everywhere, even in our own backyard. We just came off an apocalyptic nuclear showdown with the Soviets that brought us to the brink of mutual assured destruction. And of course, there was the Domino Theory (which some scholars believe to be a fabrication), which believed that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, all of East Asia would soon follow.

We lived in times that were unparalleled before in our nation’s history. The intelligence and military communities actually believed our way of life was being threatened by the Soviet Union and their umbrella states. Kennedy was accused within many circles (mostly unfairly) of being “soft on Communism” and letting the Soviets have their way. This “appeasement” argument believed that it was the lack of resolve against fascism in the 1930s that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Imperial Japan.

All of this can possibly lead to many people concluding that Kennedy was killed because either he was too soft on Nikita Khrushchev, or Fidel Castro, or Ho Chi Minh, or all three of them. Whether he was or not is beside the point. What does matter is that many people believed he was not doing enough, and some of those voices came from within the Pentagon, CIA, and the White House.

This should lead any one of us to rethink our view of America and see that we are no different from any other country in the world. We may be bigger and richer than most others, but that does not mean we cannot do some terrible things in our own right. Critiquing our country is not the same as hating it. In fact, criticism means you love your country because you want it to improve and be better.

And we should all want it to be better. This is why it is essential that we learn about the activities of government, corporations, and other organizations/people that make important decisions in our country. This is why the media are so important. We need to keep the powers that be in check. If we do not, who is to say our current president or future presidents could not fall victim to assassination?

Thus, does this mean the CIA must be hiding something incriminating because they refuse to release so many documents? Possibly. Does this mean our country is continuing to be run by secret fascists who want nothing more than U.S. hegemony at all costs? I will not go that far, though there are plenty of people out there who would.

I think it is fair to say that we need to keep an open mind and rethink our definition of patriotism. If patriotism means loving your country no matter what decisions they make, then count me out. If patriotism means loving your country but being allowed to question your fellow countrymen with the desire to make things better, then I can get aboard with that. And all of us should, too.

It is no wonder why so many people today distrust their government. It didn’t start with Iraq, or torture allegations, or the JFK assassination, or Vietnam, or Watergate, or Monica Lewinsky, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Iran-Contra affair, it all started in 1776 when those colonists decided to form their own country free of monarchy, tyranny, and authoritarianism.

Things have been far from perfect since then, but it is the intrinsic human desire for freedom that will carry us well into the next century and beyond.

Equality is a Myth, Ugly People Suck, and Other Inconvenient Observations

October 17, 2009

Disregard whatever you’ve heard before: we are not all created equal.

No man, woman, or child is equal to any other man, woman, or child. This is a tough reality to face, especially in a democracy like ours. We would like to think that all men (or women) are created equal, and that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Have you heard this somewhere before? You probably have.

But the truth is a little more brutal than that. Granted, we do live in a society where most people are given equal rights under the law, but the buck pretty much stops there. Anyone can go to school, enroll in college, and apply for a job. But will anyone hire them? That depends on a multitude of factors.

Some of those factors are innate. Others are biological. And others are dictated by society. Let me explain.

Americans like to believe that every citizen can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough. But those on the left will argue that factors like wealth, family prestige, and race/gender/sexual orientation help give certain people an advantage over others. Their observations are quite right. There is an old saying that in America, anyone can grow up to become President of the United States. But it sure helps if your father is named George H.W. Bush and you come from an oil rich family.

There are countless studies arguing that men have an advantage over women in many areas in life, that white people have an edge over racial minorities, and that gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people have hills to climb that their straight counterparts do not. All of these problems are true. And thankfully, society is making progress (as slow as it may seem) to make amends and truly treat everyone as equals.

But besides demographic handicaps, there exists other factors that give people a significant advantage over others. And there is no way to stop it.

Intelligence is one. Smarter people, supposedly, are more likely to succeed than not so smart people. The exception might be found in the world of sports, where brainless jocks can make millions only because they can catch a football better than any of us.

But consider intelligence as an inherent characteristic that gives people an edge when it comes to making money, scoring high paying jobs, and getting into good colleges. No dummy can get into Harvard or Yale (unless, of course, you come from a rich family); never mind survive it for four years. Or get a degree.

It should come as no surprise that intelligence runs in the genes. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I am very inclined to agree. But intelligence doesn’t always guarantee success, of course. There are plenty of lazy people out there who are very bright, but aren’t terribly motivated. They made a choice, and they are living out those choices. And, naturally, there are smart people who choose careers that don’t rake in the big bucks. I am willing to bet that most starving artists are very intelligent people; they’re just not very rich. But money and success don’t always mean the same thing, right?

Then there’s the case of smart people not getting the breaks or opportunities that others do. If you’re an intelligent person who lives in a poor neighborhood, your odds of getting into college or attending a decent public school system is lower than those who live in a wealthier city. This would be what is known as “untapped potential.” There are millions of kids out there who could be potential Noble Peace Prize winners if they just lived in better conditions. What a shame.

Another uncontrollable factor is natural talent. Some people are born with better physical abilities than the rest. No matter how hard I try, I will never become a better basketball player than LeBron James, or a better hitter than Ichiro Suzuki, or a better quarterback than Peyton Manning. They are born with natural skills, hand-eye coordination, and physical bodies that I am not blessed with.

And talent cannot be learned. No matter how many hours I spend in the gym, or how many world-class coaches I work with, or how many years I spend practicing, my jump shot will never be as good as LeBron’s. His genetic make up makes him a superior basketball player than 99 percent of the world’s population. I, on the other hand, live among that 99 percent, not that small elite 1 percent.

There is proof that athletic ability is genetic and not a learned art. It has been said by medical experts that certain athletes are able to return from ligament surgery quicker than the rest of us because their bodies are so coordinated, that when the nerve endings in essence “rewire” themselves after surgery, it happens quicker in them than John Doe. John Doe (or Jane Doe) needs more time because his/her nervous system is not nearly as well tuned as that of an NFL player.

This might explain why soccer moms or baseball dads who punish their kids with hours of practice in hopes that they will become the next future hall of famer in their respective sport might be wasting their (and their kid’s) time. Making your little Billy practice fielding for three hours after school will not guarantee that he will become the next Derek Jeter.

Maybe this explains why so many “children of famous athletes” like Ken Griffey, Jr. (Ken Griffey, Sr.), Matt Hasselbeck (Don Hasselbeck), Lofa Tatupu (Mosi Tatupu), and the Manning brothers (Peyton and Eli have a famous father in Archie Manning) have made it big over the years. Talented athletes give birth (or father) to more talented athletes. Is this a miracle? No, it’s scientific.

Natural talent goes beyond physical abilities. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could write symphonies before most of us could do our times tables. He was blessed with a musical ear and an endless fountain of imagination that most of us do not possess. There is a reason why his music is still listened to and played today.

But could any Tom, Dick, or Harry replicate the musical achievements of a Mozart, or Beethoven, or George Gershwin? Probably not, unless our standard of excellence dramatically falls all of a sudden. I doubt that will happen any time soon.

And, of course, there is another category where some people are considered superior to others. It is a category that we notice everyday. We are reminded of it every time we walk into a grocery store. Children as young as 5 or 6 can be teased about it on the school yard. Today there are people who spend thousands of dollars to improve it.

Have you guessed what it is? If not, that’s okay. The category that gives certain people an edge over others is beauty. Physical looks. This has nothing to do with intellectual capabilities, hard work, or learning. Some people are born better looking than others. Yes, there are ways to enhance beauty (some strategies are as modest as the simple application of makeup to the more extreme road of plastic surgery), but either you got it, or you don’t.

Beauty and physical appearance do give people an unfair edge over their more homely friends. Good looking people are usually served quicker at restaurants. They might be more likely to beat out a speeding ticket. An employer might hire a beautiful person over a less attractive person; especially if the job requires dealing with the public (does Abercrombie & Fitch ring a bell to anyone?).

What about jobs that just require being beautiful? Modeling is an industry created specifically for the more aesthetically pleasing in our society. So has most anything in the entertainment and media business. It is no mystery that women are discriminated against in the businesses where being featured on camera is involved. Do you ever wonder why all “weather girls” are perky, pretty, and shapely?

Discrimination against less attractive people has been going on for centuries, as well as the backlash against it. People are upset because putting beauty on a pedestal only makes life difficult for the rest of us, not to mention more costly, time consuming, and frustrating. If girls as young as 10 or 12 are starting to use makeup, then we have a problem.

All this is to prove that there are factors in our society that go beyond race, gender, socio-economic status, and religion in deciding who is “superior” to others. This is not a uniquely American thing, either. This practice has been going on since time began. But all this seems more upsetting considering we live in a “free society” where anyone can achieve anything if they just try hard enough.

Which is not to say that we don’t live in a free country where self-determination is still the name of the game. It is to a certain extent, but we have to realize that no matter how you spin it, some people are “more equal” than others. Sound Orwellian to you? Not really. Sounds more realistic to me. These standards aren’t unconstitutional, of course, but they do seep into our every day behavior.

People with higher intelligence, natural talent, and beauty do have an advantage over everyone else. But is that necessarily a bad thing? What’s wrong with using your God-given gifts to your own advantage? Pragmatic self-interest never hurt anyone (just ask the infamous political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli). As the old saying goes, if you got it, flaunt it.

But our egalitarian mindset tells us that this is all wrong. Everyone should have an equal chance in life, regardless of what cards they were dealt with. Being dealt a “superior” hand should mean nothing in the long run. But it does, doesn’t it?

Maybe there is no answer to this. Maybe we are all born unequal and we should just accept it. Why bother to change something that is so deep rooted in our collective culture? Or can we change our culture and perspective regarding human worth? That is a question I leave to you.

Of Man and Drink

October 16, 2009
Alcohol and society have a fascinating relationship.

Alcohol and society have a fascinating relationship.

Alcohol is a funny thing. It costs a lot. You can’t drink too much of it. And if you are caught drinking too much of it while driving a motor vehicle, you are liable to get yourself into a mountain load of trouble.

So what’s the appeal?

The answer is pretty simple. Alcoholic drinks can be very tasty. Good beer, as opposed to cheap watered down garbage like Bud Light or Keystone Light, can be a delicious treat every once in a while. One cannot drink too much beer out of the danger of developing a “beer belly” as so many middle-aged folk suffer from. But nevertheless, a good quality brew during a tasty meal is very hard to beat.

But, there are of course downsides to every good thing. Consuming too much alcohol can be hazardous to your health in multiple ways. It can damage your liver, your brain, and your relationships with your loved ones. It can also lead to you losing your job, losing your insurance, and one too many trips to the hospital. The dangers are endless.

But this is not a blog post about the dangers of drinking and driving. There are plenty of other places to read about that. Hopefully this will be more worth your time. It is worth thinking about the complex, fascinating, and tumultuous relationship society has had with alcohol over the years, and continues to have today.

Alcohol was first created thousands of years ago as a way for human being to be able to drink a beverage that they knew would be free of toxins, germs, and other inconvenient impurities. In the times of Jesus of Nazareth, two thousand years ago, everyone drank wine because they did not have the water purification systems in place that we enjoy today. There were no Roman Empire desalination plants or water engineers whose jobs were to guarantee every citizen clean drinking water.

Instead, a distilled drink had to be the way to go. Of course, many believe the wine in Jesus’ time was no stronger than bitter grape juice, but that is beside the point. Drinking alcohol was trendy out of necessity, not because everyone in those days were wine connoisseurs. They weren’t French, were they?

Today, wine is stronger than it was in ages past. And so are the choices. Today alcohol is a choice drink, not the only beverage on the market. For most people, alcohol is a treat; a drink that one enjoys every so often, not all the time. No one has the money, tolerance, or ability to drink alcohol all the time everyday.

Despite the opening up of other beverage options, and despite the long history human beings have had with the drink, social problems involving alcohol still persists today. The United States government tried to shut down alcohol production during the Prohibition era. Temperance movements to curb excessive drinking were considered noble causes. Today we would accuse someone like that of being prudish, Puritanical, or sheltered.

But prohibition was eventually lifted. Too much bathtub gin and other forms of moonshine made banning alcohol both impractical and silly. Banning it will not make it go away. Governments have tried to discourage excessive drinking since the days of the Persian Empire. But the problems still comes back time and time again. People, as long as alcohol is available, will drink too much for whatever reasons they might have.

So public drunkenness and other societal dangers of inebriation are nothing new. And society has tried to crack down on these problems for just as long. But none of these efforts will make alcohol go away. Wine, beer, and liquor are here to stay.

But it is interesting to think about this relationship. Society loves it, but warns against loving it too much. Some countries, like the United States, have imposed age limits on consuming alcohol. Here, one must be 21 or over to buy alcohol. In some countries, there is no age limit. How do they survive?

Simple: they have fewer problems than we do. There are those who argue that age limits on alcohol create more problems than it prevents. Some people believe the drinking age should be 18, which is the same for purchasing tobacco, voting, and achieving “adult” status. If you’re old enough to join the military, pick up an M-16, and kill enemy combatants overseas, why can’t you be old enough to enjoy a Guinness with your friends?

Supposedly, counties with either no drinking age or a low drinking age have fewer problems than we do. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Either way, it is still an issue that politicians and citizens are debating. If the drinking age were lowered to 18, would you see fewer cases of alcohol poisoning on college campuses? Perhaps. Would you see more adults grow up to be more responsible with the drink if they had been able to purchase it at an earlier age? That is a possibility.

In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Their cause should be obvious. Look at television commercials for Captain Morgan or Smirnoff. They advertise their product by showing young sexy good looking people partying it up, and tell you to “drink responsibly.” This is all proof that despite the long and accepted presence of alcohol in our society, there still exists the taboo in our collective consciousness that too much is not a good thing.

It is even misleading to compare alcohol to tobacco. Though tobacco has decreased in popularity over the years due to revelations of lung cancer and other carcinogenic dangers, tobacco serves no other purpose other than the nicotine it provides to its users. There is a sort of “tobacco high” smokers get when they light up, but the addicting power of tobacco is very well known.

Tobacco can be used in moderation, but it usually not. When one gets addicted to it, it can be very difficult to quit. But alcohol is a substance that one can consume in moderation. Alcoholism is a problem that takes a little longer and requires more drinking than becoming hooked on cigarettes. But then again, I’ve never smoked before so I can’t really be certain about that.

But it fair to say that people have more conscious control over their alcohol use than tobacco. But that is neither here nor there.

What is relevant is that the relationship between humanity and alcohol is unprecedented compared to any other food or drink. Carbohydrates may have taken a brutal hit 8 or 10 years ago, but we will always eat our bread, potatoes, rice, and noodles. No where else in our drinking and eating world do we have a substance that is nearly as controversial as alcohol. Alcohol has led to premature deaths. Alcohol consumed by pregnant women can be damaging to their baby. You don’t hear about pregnant women cutting down on carbs, do you?

Alcohol is the one liquid, perhaps second to water and oil, that has made more governments upset and frustrated than anything else. Water and oil are by far the most discussed liquids in global politics. But regardless, who thought food could be such a controversial subject? If there is one subject where politics, religion, and society mix, it would be alcohol.

This is just a taste (no pun intended) of the complexities alcohol presents to our society. Love it, hate it, or die from it, it is here to stay for the long haul. Just thinking about the maddening relationship between society and distilled liquid should make your head spin.

Now there’s something worth talking about at cocktail parties.

Is It Time to Finally Pull the Plug on Afghanistan?

October 8, 2009
U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal is only one of several voices President Obama is listening to.
U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal is only one of several voices President Obama is listening to.

Does anyone really understand what is happening in Afghanistan anymore? With President Obama in the midst of deciding what to do with this challenging, upsetting, and mind-numbing 8-year-old war, the American public should think hard about what this war has meant to us.

We invaded Afghanistan in December of 2001 in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Everyone knows this. We were not there for oil, to stop nuclear proliferation, or to topple an unpopular dictator. We were there for reasons of vengeance, pure and simple.

Of course, America justified the invasion by saying we were there to liberate the Afghan people from the Taliban regime; a group of Islamic fundamentalists who oppressed women, murdered anyone who did not adhere to their strict doctrine, and prevented any economic, political, or social progress from blooming. These people were bad news. And of course, it did not help that they harbored al Qaeda, the terrorist network who killed nearly 3,000 Americans one fateful September morning.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has publicly advocated for President Obama to send additional troops to stamp out the insurgency once and for all. Usually a military general does not publicly announce such opinions, but that is beside the point. That is one voice that our president is hearing. Other voices are calling for him to pull out of Afghanistan completely. What makes this perspective unusual is its bipartisanship nature. Critics both on the right and the left think America should do this. When you have a mixture of conservatives and liberals agreeing on a major political issue, that means something significant.

Then again, there are plenty of voices in the media who believe Obama should stay the course and hope the Afghan government can get their act together. The August 20th presidential election in Afghanistan was wrought with allegations of fraud. President Hamid Karzai won a disputed election that international critics are decrying. Allegedly, government forces arrested anti-Karzai protesters, beat supporters of Karzai’s main opponent (the aptly named Abdullah Abdullah), stuffed ballots, and generally intimidated anyone who stood in his way of winning reelection.

Do any of these tactics sound familiar? Oh yeah, they sound like tactics the Taliban would use had they been into pseudo-democracy. It sounds like despotism has not completely left Afghanistan, even after 8 years of war. This proves that some things never change.

But this should not come as a surprise to anyone. If you know anything about Afghanistan’s history, there has not been a stable government in power there in quite a while. From the Soviet occupation of the 1980s to the current U.S.-led occupation, foreign powers have come in and tried to install their rule on the Afghan people. And all of these efforts have failed. Will this spell doom for the United States and NATO? One can only hope not.

McChrystal might be right in wanting to send more troops. Candidate Obama promised to send nearly 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in order to stamp out the Taliban, bring the last remnants of al Qaeda to justice, and make sure that Central Asian country is never again a breeding ground for terrorism (or is it “man-made disasters?”). All of these are ambitious goals; but are they achievable?

Critics of George W. Bush (and God knows there are plenty of them out there) argue he did not do enough to secure Afghanistan from chaos after the initial invasion. There is a lot of credibility to that argument. Bush seemed too bent on invading Iraq than he did on finishing the job in the country where the 9/11 attacks were conceived and planned. It seems reasonable to believe that Bush should have poured all his military efforts to secure Afghanistan, prevent Pakistan from becoming a hide-out place for al Qaeda, and encourage the international community to assist in nation-building.

But all that seems like a distant memory. The international community is rightfully hesitant to getting involved in Afghanistan because of all the instability that is going on over there. How are they to know that their money, effort, and manpower will not go to waste within 10 or so years? No one can know for sure. Just look at Somalia. How much money has the U.N. invested in that tiny African country? I don’t know for sure, but it’s more than what they are getting in return.

I am shifting my position on Afghanistan. I will continue to keep an open mind, but it might be time to pull the plug there. U.S. military casualties are soaring at record heights. More servicemen and women are being killed there than Iraq. Historians are calling Afghanistan a doomed mission, in line with Vietnam. The parallels between those two wars are striking. And of course, look at recent history. If the Soviets could not impose their will there, why can we?

But maybe imposing our freedom loving, secular democratic will is not possible. Afghanistan’s long and troubling history makes it almost impossible for real positive change to occur there anytime in the near future. The same goes with Iraq and Kosovo. Kosovo might be an independent country now, but they are far from secure. Trouble is brewing in that spot of the world as well.

President Obama says he wants clear, attainable, and achievable objectives spelled out before he makes a final decision. That is a smart move on his part. With millions of lives at stake, you do not want to rush into anything that you might regret later. Our military is exhausted from fighting two long bloody wars. If we’re going to expand the war in Afghanistan, we better have a clear strategy.

Obama is smart and I am sure he will make a smart decision. But then again, President Kennedy’s team was comprised of the Best and the Brightest, and look at what they did in Southeast Asia. So this means even the smartest people in the world can still make foolish decisions.

But then again, to be perfectly honest, maybe there is no clear cut best solution to fixing this mess. Maybe only time will tell. Perhaps this is one of those decisions where we have to make an executive decision, carry it out, and pray it goes well. It’s like being a quarterback in a football game: you just throw the ball and hope somebody catches it; preferably someone on your own team, of course.

So to answer the original question, does anyone really understand the ground situation in Afghanistan? It is quite possible even the Afghan government, as corrupt as they are, have no clue what will happen five years from now. Maybe that is why they are using so much violence to keep power. If they lose it, they could lose their country. Or maybe they are no better than the Taliban, who still hold significant power in neighboring Pakistan.

These are reasons why I am glad that I am not in a position to have to make these decisions. And I think I speak for plenty of other people as well.

The Summer of 2009 Was Never Short on Drama

October 7, 2009

            Yes, I am aware that it has been forever since I last blogged. It’s not that I haven’t had the time. I’m currently between jobs. Sometimes I get burnt out writing all the time. If I got paid writing a blog, I’d definitely do it more often.

            A lot has happened this summer. Senator Ted Kennedy passed away. Healthcare has become the latest huge issue facing our country. Afghanistan is spinning out of control. Football season is now upon us. The list is endless.

            Much has been written about Obama’s push for insuring the uninsured. Should there be a public option? Should we even have universal healthcare? How are the systems in England and Canada really like? Are people lining up in the streets waiting to see a doctor (as Republicans would like you to believe), or is the system all rosy like Democrats would want you to think?

            I don’t really have a good answer to that, nor should I even attempt to answer that. I think it is safe to say that if you want to get good information about the healthcare debate, I am not the place to go for that. Check out other sources. They are much more informed than I am.

            I will admit that I have not paid attention to the healthcare debate as closely as I should. It seems like too much to handle. On one hand, it is wrong that millions of people are without health insurance in our country. We are a wealthy country (recession or no recession) and should have the capability to care for our poor.

            And a lot has been said about all those series of disastrous “town hall meetings” designed to let public officials and the public meet to discuss healthcare reform. And by discussion, I really mean shouting matches. Because that’s exactly what happened. Whatever happened to civility in our society? Maybe it never existed.

            As we move into fall and the upcoming winter, there will be a lot on our plate. The showdown over healthcare will happen sooner or later. President Obama will have to make a decision about how to move forward in Afghanistan. And whatever happened to Iraq? Should we stay, leave, or a little bit of both?

            All this is happening while I still look for a permanent job. Trust me, I have tried. But no matter how many jobs I apply for, there are at least twenty or thirty others who are just as, if not more qualified than I am. That makes for a difficult job hunting extravaganza.

            Nevertheless, I hope our government solves the issue of healthcare sooner than later. The longer this drags out, the wearier the public will become and the angrier our elected officials will be. If there is a way to provide health insurance to those who need it while not making too much of a significant dent in the national debt, I would be all for it. But until that happens, it looks as though leaders on both sides of the aisle will never come to an agreement that will make a genuine impact in our country.

            Or maybe they will. And the president can sign it into law. We’ll see.