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The fatal flaw of the “it gets better” campaign finally came alive to me. Now, before you criticize, I understand that bullying of any sort is terrible and that a positive message is good.

It never gets any better for butter.

But here’s the catch. Why do we ask people to wait and be patient for things to get better? Isn’t that the mental trap we all inhabit anyway? If only this thing I am hoping for came to pass, then my life would be perfect. It can be any number of things that are easy to imagine–a new car, a new  job, a new spouse, a new school.

The process devalues the present moment and forestalls the possibilities of being whole now, not in some distant future. No wonder it caught on so quickly.

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I can’t believe this became news to me only this morning: Obama is a heretic. His alleged sin? Failure to believe in American exceptionalism.

The irony, already pointed out, is that he is no such thing. He just expresses his beliefs differently. Pity.

Dude, where's my country?

What this country needs is someone to point out the absurdity of the belief. Hello! People in every country believe their homeland has some special quality or mission.

For us, it happens to be our political system, which is increasingly indistinct from our economic system. Other countries are proud of their social safety nets, their excellent taste in wine, their clean, roomy prison systems, etc. No one is sitting around thinking, “Why can’t we merge our garden-variety nation with our cooler, more exceptional neighbor to the north/south/east/west?”

It takes courage to see the world as it is, not the way we imagine it to be. But it’s not the kind of courage we expect from a politician, liberal or conservative. But why shouldn’t we?

 

 

A lot, and we might go blind. So with that out of the way, I hope you enjoyed President Obama’s State of the Union speech.

Rock, paper...shredder!!!

What I love best are the critics who blast it as just words. Um, it was a speech. Of course it was just words. Did you expect Obama to pick up a hammer and start building that wall we want erected along the Mexican border? Or did you expect him to whip out some federal grant checks and run them through a shredder? “This is how serious I am about cutting spending!!!!”

His speech is just words. The response is just words. And all those people pointing out that Michelle Bachmann wasn’t looking at the camera? Words. What can we say? We’re in love with them.

 

The news cycle has mostly moved on from discussing alleged links between violent political rhetoric and the Tucson, Ariz. shooting. And the spectacle of our legislators sitting boy, girl, boy, girl, er, D, R, D, R, will further move us beyond it.

Nonetheless, let’s postulate this as  one of the reasons we react so strongly to the alleged links: If media and messages can make someone do that, what other, smaller things can they make us do? In other words, the discussion beckons us to question the source(s) of our own thoughts and desires, and that’s not something we really want to dwell on. And if we do dwell, we don’t want to stay too long or venture beyond the poles of conventional wisdom.

A clever invention, but it doesn't light up all by itself.

How much of us is really us, and how much comes from outside, whether it’s all those Smurf cartoons we watched as children or that odd tension we recall from our childhood homes?

There’s no easy answer, so it’s inevitable that our national attention will move on to something else. Human motivation is just too complicated. But you don’t have to be crazy to acknowledge that we hear other people’s voices coming from our own mouths sometimes–namely, the voices of our parents. But if we are honest, we can likely name other voices as well.

 

 

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

It is a short chapter in A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, and it doesn’t appear until page 83. But it’s an important one. It clearly seeks to establish his claim as the most-traveled pathfinder of his day.

The chapter is curiously titled “Deadly Figures.” Westgard begins by listing the top two questions he gets: What kinds of tires do you use, and how far have you driven? His answer to the second?

My answer is invariably that I do not know, though I have most likely traveled more different (note the different) miles on rubber tires than any man in the world. This I believe to be true.

In the old days, drivers had to affix their own odometers to the dash. While inconvenient, it was much easier to roll back--or forward, depending on whom you were trying to impress.

But to establish the truth, Westgard needs more than  belief. So he  proceeds to deconstruct the assertion of some “relatively” young man who told reporters he  had traveled 800,000 miles in 15 years. A little math from Westgard reveals that the man would have had to travel 141 miles a day,  every day. It’s possible, Westgard writes. But given the condition of roads in those days, it is “hardly within the range of probability.”

Let the record show that Westgard was not one to make idle boasts, nor one to tolerate them either. After demolishing the young man’s claim, Westgard reassures the reader that he limits himself to a simple proclamation, that he has made “more trips across the United States, East and West, North and South, than any other man, and that those trips were mostly over different routes.”

I’m still wondering what was so deadly about those figures. I’m also wondering about his tires. Surely he could have earned a little extra cash for in-book product placement.

It’s a paradox of modern life: We are mobile, yet sedentary. Blame the auto? Blame the glowing, pixellated screen? Surely it can be no coincidence that the rise of those two great technologies–moving carriages and moving pictures–took place over roughly the same period.

And at their joint birth was our friend, A.L. Westgard. In 1916, he conceived–or at least was associated with–the idea of taking motion pictures of the

It would have been more exciting if the car had fallen off the planks. But that would have to wait for more sophisticated film editors.

entire United States. This according to an article in volume 20 of The Camera: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Advancement of Photography.

Here is a selection from the article (note how two nascent industries stand to gain, and, of course, use of the word “dream,” as in “The American Dream”):

Mr. Westgard, who knows the beauty spots as no other man knows them, believes that he can show Americans things about their own country of which they scarcely dream.

The Pathe Company, which will distribute the films, believes so, too, and so does the Combitone Picture Company, which is financing the expedition. The pictures are to be entirely different from any hitherto seen, because made by the new Combitone process, invented and perfected by F. W. Hochstetter, formerly of the Edison staff, now consulting photo chemist of the American Photo Chemical Company.

Today, with our much richer business vocabulary, we would call this commercial venture an example of synergy.

It takes an economist to move me to write. I’m listening to NPR this morning after dropping the kids with their grandparents and on comes a Bank of America economist. He begins to bemoan the largest deficits this country has ever run in peacetime.

Get it? Peacetime. 

Last I checked, the US military was active in two countries that, while few people prefer to use the term “at war,” can not be described as peaceful: Iraq and Afghanistan.

I guess they fed the kool-aid to the “economists” as well as the risk managers at BofA. Maybe they should check back into the reality-based community once in a while.

But what’s equally maddening is that the NPR reporter seemed to let the “peacetime” comment pass without, uh, comment. Journos love to bring on the experts when they need perspective, but they don’t always like to ask the experts tough questions. That would just complicate things.

So I’ve been reading a lot lately about the pain of independent gas stations and how they’re struggling with falling fuel prices.  It seems they haven’t been buying gas often enough to mark down their prices as quickly as their chain competitors.

Funny, but I don’t recall independent gas stations raising their prices more slowly than their chain counterparts. In fact, I remember them following rising prices lockstep.

Seems to me, if independents were buying gas as often then as they are now (i.e,, not as often as their bigger rivals) they would have been stuck with lower-priced gas. Thus, they could have raised their prices more slowly and undercut the competition, albeit at the expense of higher profits.

If you recall that happening, let me know. I could be wrong, as most mom-and-pop gas stations in York County, PA are gone — I can think of only two).

It’s easy to work up sympathy, but the effort shouldn’t cloud logic. If they were smart, independent-station owners have some extra cash left over from the days of skyrocketing prices (credit-card fees notwithstanding).

Or, like Wall Street titans, they thought “up” was the only direction prices could go.

A long absence — i had to let the election and the last month of campaigning speak for itself. A nice rationalization, eh?

At any rate, I was recently at a panel looking back at the Web component of the 2008 election. Much of the discussion centered on how Obama could transition his use of Youtube, social networking, etc, from campaigning to governing. Hey look! It’s a presidential radio address on Youtube! [media swoons, populace  yawns]

It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly what I think about this, but here it goes. I think the transition from campaigning to governing, whatever form it takes, will be a big disappointment. Leave aside the difference between a focus on one goal, the election, and the more diffuse tasks facing a government, and chew on these:

First off, the people pushing for more electronic government rely too heavily on technology as a force for change. Culture always has and always will play a bigger role, and it is much harder to identify cultural forces than it is to hold up the latest shiny gadget. I’m not sure the culture of governing is apt to change just because of online videos and twitter. Never underestimate the power of bureaucratic inertia. If and when bureaucrats do change, it won’t be in any way that we can easily identify.

And it might not be for the better. One participant on my panel claimed the full potential of the Internet would have the same effect on government as the discovery that the world was round. Sounds nice, but I should have pointed this out then (what can I say, I’m a slow thinker): what mattered wasn’t the roundness of the world but Galileo’s discovery that it revolved around the sun, pushing the earth and its inhabitants out of the center of the universe. The internet seems to put us right back in that un-humbling spot.

Let’s say a bunch of people Twitter angrily about a long line at the DMV. What’s the state supposed to do? Rush over untrained workers from some other office to handle the crush? Or make a case for higher taxes so that the DMV can be fully staffed or stay open for more hours? You decide.

Second, Obama adapted Web tools to fuel an insurgent campaign against an institution, the Democratic Party, that had already anointed Hillary Clinton. It’s unclear how you adapt those tools to running an institution, whether party or government. Unless you are prepared to radically change the institution.

Third, too often  the assumption behind publishing reams of gov’t information online and fostering discussion seems to be that people will arrive at a rational consensus on where the country should go. For example, I saw a comment here asking how people can use a bunch of congressional info for the public good. When you come across a definition of the public good that every voting American can agree on — and a set of policies designed to get there — get back to me. If I’m still alive, I’ll gladly entertain debate on the use of this particular info.

Fourth, the debate simply overlooks how much our forebears were able to do without the Internet. Adopt the reforms of the New Deal and the Progressive Era? Populate a continent and build the world’s largest economy? It should be obvious, but no one appears to appreciate it. Technology alone does not guarantee sweeping political change. It could even hinder it.

Electronic mediums seem to inflame differences rather than bridge them. It’s why testy email exchanges degenerate so quickly. They take away as much of our common humanity (our physical presence being a big part of it) as they let us share.

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