On Foisting Morality

I should note that Brooke doesn’t agree with various aspects of this post.  My opinion and mine alone!

Brooke and I have had more than a few conversations about the “birth control mandate” controversy from the last few weeks, where the Obama Administration required under the Affordable Health Care Law that all employers, including Catholic Hospitals and Universities, are required to provide birth control as part of their health care coverage to employees.  Various Catholic organizations, and others, protested this requirement, so the Administration compromised in allowing these organizations to avoid paying for the coverage as part of their contracts with health insurance companies, however, the insurance companies themselves would need to provide the coverage to the employees of these organizations.

While some felt this compromise was an example of the Administration deftly maneuvering around a touchy issue in an election year, others felt it still went against the rights of the employer to deny coverage they deem to be immoral.

It was this “immorality” part that yesterday’s On Point Radio show on NPR took on, interviewing a Pro-Life representative, a Pro-Choice representative, and a Bioethicist about the issue, from a moral, non-religious standpoint.

One of the callers caught my attention as making my point better than I could ever hope to make it.  Sadly, there’s no transcript, so I can’t put it on here verbatim, but it transpired late in the podcast.  An employer called in with a hypothetical situation, based on one of his employees’ experiences.  He was quick to point out this was a “Devil’s Advocate” kind of position, but it illustrates what concerned him about legislation currently moving through the House and Senate that would allow employers to “get around” what the Obama Administration had put in place and deny coverage under a “conscience amendment.”

Suppose that an employee is under their employer’s insurance.  That employee finds out that they are pregnant, and further finds out that they are having a child with Down’s Syndrome.  The employee decides to go ahead with the pregnancy and delivers the baby.  As this actually happened, the employer (the caller) had access to the bill, or at least, what the insurance company ended up paying: right around $300,000.

So, on a moral ground, the employer could say “You know, I think it’s immoral to make other people in this company’s insurance network fork over the $300,000 to pay for this hospital visit.  It’s okay if you, the employee, want to give birth, but it’s immoral for that cost to get shifted over to the insurance company.  You, the employee, should have to pay that $300,000.  That’s your right to pay for it, but it isn’t your right to make your insurer pay for it.  On moral grounds, I don’t think you should have had the baby.”

Again, this particular employer wasn’t advocating this position, but it’s illustrative of what a law like this would allow: employers could deny any coverage they thought was immoral.  That means a company run by Jehovah’s Witnesses could disallow blood transfusions to its employees.  That means a bigoted employer could deny AIDS treatments because you’re a homosexual.  That means an employer (or insurance company), like in the hypothetical above, could say an abortion was more moral than the delivery of a disabled child.  And that means a Catholic organization could deny birth control to women with ovarian cysts, likely dooming them to infertility.

That’s why this mandate exists and that’s why it’s necessary: not to force companies to do something, but to ensure that the morals and/or religious ideology of companies and employers aren’t foisted upon you, the employee.  It’s freedom of religion and freedom from religion.  Even Protestants recognize that favoring one religious community will affect another.

People, as a group, have a right to health services.  It isn’t up to the employer which services you are allowed to get: it’s between you and your doctor.

Let’s keep it that way.

Internet Bi-Partisanship

By now, surely you have read and/or heard plenty about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These two bills were heading through the U.S. House and Senate (respectively) and seemed destined for passage as recently as last week, with the first votes coming up next week.

Also, as you probably know, a shutdown of Wikipedia, Reddit, and other popular websites (as well as a host of other “In Solidarity” messages on homepages across the web) managed to galvanize support against the bills that has never been seen before.  In a single day, Google.com collected over 7 million signatures on an online petition.  Rather than the English-version of the website, Wikipedia redirected you to a list of your Congressional representatives and senators so you could either phone or e-mail them (I sent e-mails to all of mine; heard back from two of them, so far).

I don’t want to belabor how bad the bills are (or now were).  They were pretty bad.  They were so vague as to allow for entire websites to be brought down, or at least to make it so cost-ineffective to host any interaction with users and consumers (for fear of copyrighted material being posted) that an entire industry of user-generated content would die.  I highly suggest you watch the video above if you want to understand the issue fully.  If you’re an internet user in any capacity, it’s an important 13 minutes for you to spend.

Mostly, I wanted to address how ridiculously cool it was to see the entire internet united, even if for only one day.  For that 24 hr period, this is all anyone was talking about across social networking.  For that 24 hr period, people were engaged in the politics of what was going on with an issue that applied to them directly.  For that 24 hr period, it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican posting on some message board: both political parties supported the bills, and both party’s voters were against it.

For that 24 hr period, the internet and its users had more political power than the lobbyists from the motion picture industry and the music industry.  And that’s saying something.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the form of the Arab Spring nearly a year ago, where social networking and the internet helped spawn a revolution across the Arab world, in multiple countries, casting down dictators long thought to be invincible by their people.  Their citizens got organized, coalesced behind a belief that they could make a difference in their lives, and decided to take action.  And in some small way, the internet did the same thing for the people of the United States this week.

And I just think that’s kinda cool.

Another Reason to Buy American

A few months ago, I started listening to This American Life, a weekly Public Radio International show typically broadcast on NPR (Sundays around here, I think). Back in late July, they broadcast an episode about “patent trolls” that was particularly engaging, so I’ve been hooked ever since.

Last week’s episode, which I highly suggest you listen to, focuses on manufacturing in China, specifically, of products in Shenzhen.  Products from Samsung, Dell, HP, and more specifically, Apple.  Mike Daisey is something of a story-teller, so he gets up on stage in front of live audiences and talks in one-man shows.  As an Apple lover, he expounds upon his history with their products and how he always sought to understand how his iPad, iPhone, MacBook Pro, etc. worked, even going so far as to take his laptop(s) apart, clean them, and put them back together.  Through various circumstances, it occurred to him that he knew very little about how these products were actually made, however, so he took a trip to Shenzhen to visit the Foxconn plant where practically all Apple products are manufactured.  As others have reported in the past, he found harsh working conditions, that unions were illegal, and that underage girls were employed in the factory.

More to the point of what I’m getting at, Daisey says that Apple is actually doing relatively well with their manufacturing practices, holding yearly audits, requiring that their manufacturers follow strict guidelines, and so on.  Others in China and Southeast Asia, as a whole, aren’t as careful.  Some have even suggested that, while these practices are obviously unfortunate, in many ways, it still provides a better living than these individuals had prior to industrialization.  And furthermore, in many ways, these countries are currently ascending much as the United States did in the Industrial Revolution.  It’s something of a “growing pain” that countries must go through before they can decide what work practices will be most efficient for the company, and most beneficial to the worker.

This issue is something I’ve never associated with the idea behind “Buy American,” or at least, “Buy From Companies You Know Are Providing Some Level Of Non-Exploitative Treatment To Their Workers.”  Many (most?) manufacturing plants in North America are pretty good about treating their workers fairly, with some limit on hours worked, over-time pay, a minimum wage, and so on (depending on unionization and other factors, of course).   There are a variety of European companies that do as well or better in the treatment of their workers, and I’m sure there are even some in Asia that do right by their employees.  While I’m suggesting a focus on looking into the manufacturing processes of companies we tend to buy from, I just see the whole endeavor as another reason to just Buy (North) American.

Up until now, I always thought of it as an economic issue, to keep our money here rather than sending it overseas.  Increasingly, this is difficult as manufacturing jobs have all but left the U.S.  Even when we “Buy American” in things like cars, they’re only assembled here: all the individual parts are built/assembled overseas.  But after listening to this particular story, it makes me consider other reasons to try buying American-made/grown products, where feasible.  Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to buy a TV, an MP3 player, a computer, or a phone that was assembled, let alone built, in the U.S.  I guess I’d like to see the “Buy American” ideal extended so it not only encompasses the economic need to keep our money here, but also the need to extend the rights of workers and the belief that each individual has value to the countries that make all the “stuff” we keep buying.  Perhaps something like the “Fair Trade” label used on food products from around the world: a certification process companies can apply for to provide some degree of protections for the people they employ.

I dunno.  I just never really thought about the concept of “Buy American” as a way to reward companies that treat their workers well.  Perhaps we all should.

Edit: In mid-March, This American Life had to retract their initial report, listed above, saying that Daisey had fabricated enough portions of his monologue that they deemed it unfit for their journalistic standards.  Generally speaking, things like chronology, specific interviews, and certain details were fact-checked with his translator, Cathy, who told This American Life that it didn’t all happen in that order or in that way.  They interviewed Daisey again in the podcast from that week, who felt badly for the ordeal, but wanted to make sure people realized that the things he said are “true” in that they happened at Apple plants: just not necessarily on his particular visit.

On This September 12th

The headline on September 12th from the New York Times

I actually started composing something a week ago about September 11th, reminiscing about that day and the general mood of the country prior to the attack on the World Trade Center.  As I paid attention to some 9/11 coverage during the past week, I was reminded of what the country was actually like, and that I was really viewing it with rose-colored glasses.  Hey, I was a sophomore in college; I’d only just started paying attention to the world around me.

Thus, instead, I reflect on September 12th, or really, the initial days that followed September 11th.

Much like the JFK assassination and the generation(s) before me that were actually alive at that time, I remember exactly what I was doing at the time it all happened.  I was in my dorm room and had just gotten up to read my Yahoo! News feed and see that a plane of some type had hit the first tower.  I woke up my roommate and turned on CNN just in time to watch the second plane hit the second tower.  On live television.

What followed over the next few hours, and few days, and few weeks, was a series of feelings.  Confusion.  Fear.  Shock.

Then Focus.

Then Togetherness.

Then Direction.

This country went through a terrible tragedy and, from it, came a sense of direction that it hadn’t had in awhile.  My initial blog post was looking to those years before 9/11, and that it was a time that I wish we could all return to.  However, in many ways, the country was already on a downward spiral of divisiveness, with the Lewinsky Scandal and Impeachment proceedings in the news.  With a Dot Com Bubble bursting.  With a Housing Crisis already in the works.

Really, a decade on, I’d like us all to reflect on where we were 10 years ago today, rather than 10 years ago yesterday.  Sure, yesterday was incredibly important and it is equally important that all those lives were lost.  At the same time, I think it’s essential that we remember how much of the country actually came together for a common purpose.  Eventually, that purpose was misdirected toward other political goals.  That purpose was used to divide the country even further than it’s ever been, certainly in my lifetime.  And today, on September 12, 2011, we are about as divided as we could be.

But on September 12, 2001, we were all together.  In grief.  In searching.  In wondering.

Yet also, in a desire to root out evil.  A need to be together in service to our communities.  To be together in solidarity and in support of our firefighters, policemen and EMTs, but also in support of each other.

Case in point: I read on Facebook that over 100 people from our church in St. Louis went to East St. Louis to be in service to others on September 10th as part of the Serve 2011 project.  That’s the kind of feeling we should be getting from 9/11.  Not only focusing on the attack itself, but also on the need to better ourselves that followed for the first few days and weeks after it.  The thing that was designed to tear us apart that actually helped bring us together, even if only for a few short moments.  Where we weren’t rich, poor, black, white, man or woman: we were just American.  And we were all the same.

And that’s what we need to work toward finding again, 10 years later.  Ten years after September the 12th.

What “The American People” Want

I’ve been paying attention to this fight over the debt ceiling to an extent.  Not a huge one, not a small one: just “an extent.”  I certainly have my view on the subject (i.e. make some cuts to entitlements, raise revenues on the top 5%), but that’s not what this particular post is about.

This is about the mythical “American People.”

I listen to NPR’s “On Point” program on a regular basis and, on more than one occasion, they’ve had politicians on talking about what “The American People” want.  They apparently want a balanced budget.  They want the government to act just like a family does.  They want Big Business to pay their fair share.  They want to be Pro-Life.  They want to be Pro-Choice.  They want to lower taxes.

Where are these people?

Frequently, when politicians talk about “The American People,” they’re talking about The Majority.  They fail to mention that The Majority only represents 51% of the actual voting population of America: there’s another 49% that’s statistically just as big.

With regards to the debt ceiling, let me just go ahead and summarize what the actual American People want for those politicians that apparently don’t know:

  1. They want their social security to stay the same.
  2. They want their medicare/medicaid to stay the same.
  3. They don’t want more taxes.
  4. They don’t want wasteful government programs.
  5. They want roads, bridges, police, fire fighters, clean water and constant electricity.
  6. They want a job they like.
  7. They want to be paid more than they’re currently getting.
  8. They want to buy the stuff they want with the money they make from the job they have.
  9. They want their kids to go to good schools and get the education they want.
  10. They want to live the lives they want to without the government interfering (or their neighbor, for that matter).

There are probably more things I could list, but this is a good start.  The American People just want things to continue going as they are, or to go better.  They don’t want things to change, unless they will get better.  “The American People” that most politicians seem to be talking about don’t actually exist, except in the polls they use to win their election.

I’m getting a little tired of “The American People.”  I want The American People back.

Roddenberrian Economics

Ayn Rand is someone I’ve heard of in the past, but up until now, haven’t really paid much attention to.  I “got into it” with someone over Facebook a few weeks ago regarding “Randian disciples” and learned a bit more about her in the process.  Then, at the end of April, NPR’s On Point had a discussion about her, specifically with reference to the Tea Party.  The architect of the Republican Congress’ budget plan, Paul Ryan, has referenced her on multiple occasions.  There is also a movie out, “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” which was released in a partial attempt to capitalize on her resurgence, though Rotten Tomatoes currently has the film sitting at around 9% positive ratings.

Rand grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1926.  She was a philosopher and writer, and is perhaps best known for her books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” both products of the mid-20th Century.  Due in part to her upbringing and the general climate in the post-World War II world, she embraced the concepts of Objectivism and was very much a rational individualist.  She opposed in Collectivism, an idea that contributes to Socialism and Communism.  Because of her beliefs, and the stories she told in her books, fiscal Conservatives, and especially Libertarians, have embraced her and in some ways treat her as a figurehead for their ideas.  Alan Greenspan was one of the founding members of Rand’s ironically named “Collective,” a group of close confidants and proponents of Objectivism.

The key idea behind her overall philosophy, as I understand it, is that it is wrong to take what is one person’s and give it to someone else.  That the purpose of one’s life is to pursue your own personal happiness and your own self-interest.  One could call this whole idea “Randian Economics.”  Or, as she puts it:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Any of you that know me, however, would have another quote come to mind.  Something completely different, and the antithesis of this philosophy, in my view:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

– Spock

“Or the one.”

– James T. Kirk

Which brings me to Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek (pictured atop the camera in the image above).  I won’t go into the history behind all of it, but let’s just say that if I were going to choose a side between one philosopher from the mid-20th Century and another, I’ll go with Roddenberry.  His vision of the future is one that I’d like to live in.  One where money is not the driving force for all we do.  Where the desires to serve humanity and all others surpass the desire to serve yourself.  Where humans recognize that they are only able to be more than themselves when they are together with others.  Where no one human is above anyone else, at least in terms of rights and respect.

Bear in mind that these ideas weren’t necessarily revolutionary in the 1960s, but they weren’t made publicly available on television often, either.  At the time, it was highly irregular to have a Japanese American man, an African American woman, and a guy playing a young Russian on the same bridge, serving together, working together, helping each other.  Roddenberry infused his fictional universe with hope for the future through Collectivism, where we all share what we have and work together toward a common good.

And so, I wish to coin the term “Roddenberrian Economics.”  I think we’d all be better off if we took some pointers from the man.

Heck, I’d even argue that Gene Roddenberry has more followers than Ayn Rand does.

Lonely In The Middle

The last few weeks have presented a variety of issues within the American national discourse that warrant commentary, but I’ll let that aside right now and focus on something a bit more “meta” to the situation: how, exactly, we as members of society communicate with each other.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook on two unrelated subjects.  On the first, I stated the following:

Andy Linsenbardt wants help with a list of bands or groups worse than Coldplay. The only one I can come up with so far is LFO.

That status update started a discussion spanning 96 comments across 10 or so people.  I followed it up with this:

For those that don’t want to read through the 89 comments in my previous status posting, the following was decided, after much deliberation: ICP < Nickelback < Creed < Coldplay.

On the other side of the coin, for a completely separate issue, I posted a story published by the Des Moines Register regarding abortion laws in Nebraska and how a particular couple were forced to do something they didn’t want to.  The feed this post spawned went for 51 comments across 7 or 8 people.

In both of these unrelated discussions, involving many individuals of completely different ideologies, we were able to “hold it together” and not get (too) personal.  We were completely capable of providing opinions without the need to tell each other that we were bad people or completely wrong (well, aside from the occasional sarcastic comment in that first thread…).  For the most part, it was a respectful discussion from ranging viewpoints.  On the latter discussion, I don’t think we came to anything close to a consensus, yet I feel we left more informed on the opposing viewpoints.

While the first status update was largely a “dig” at Coldplay (much-deserved…), I wasn’t thinking that I’d get nearly that many comments.

On the latter one, I kinda did, which brings me to the following point:

I think the thing missing most from the national discourse today is honesty and openness, especially from those positioned in The Middle.  There are quite a few folks out there on the political ultra-right or ultra-left that have their signs waving on the picket line, the so-called “activists” you could say.  These people are being very successful in pulling their ranks further and further from each other, making it appear that there is only a very distant “middle-ground” left between them.

It’s just sad when Facebook is the last bastion of reasonable discourse.

I won’t get into the abortion debate here or anything, but it’s safe to say that, aside from the folks out there with “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” signs going on marches, the issue is frequently ignored in the middle.  I think it’s mostly out of fear, as those in the middle are afraid of being labeled one or the other, and what that may mean.  It’s the kind of issue we frequently ignore in schools.  Going to Lutheran and Methodist churches all my life, it’s an issue that’s frequently ignored there, as well.  It just seems as if there isn’t really a middle ground in that particular debate, let alone a variety of others.  People are afraid of the subject.  They keep it locked away.

In a related fashion, all too often, I hear of people not wanting to say anything about politics, or about religion, or about culture, because they are afraid of offending friends of theirs, or of “getting into it” to the point where they may not end up speaking with someone for a few days (or weeks…or ever again…).  These are people that don’t want to bring it up around the dinner table with their spouse, or with other family members.  Those that don’t want to bring it up at work so they don’t end up getting into some kind of long argument with their co-workers.  And most relevant to this particular post, those that don’t want to post anything on Facebook or other social networking sites so their friends (or future employers…) can’t see what they think about various issues.

And therein lies the problem.  If people aren’t willing to defend their positions, with intelligence and respect, then those on the ultra-left and those on the ultra-right with their signs will have effectively won.  They will have won by scaring those in the middle away from getting into the debate in the first place.  By causing them to hide from the discussion, keeping the issue from ever reaching any kind of moderate consensus.  Without a voice firmly planted in The Middle, then the opposing sides continue to pull apart with little to hold them together.

The problem is nothing new, and it exists in other instances.  Case in point: Years ago, at a Wesley House float trip, I had a great conversation with a Methodist pastor I greatly respect.  We were lamenting the decreasing population of Methodist campus ministries, while others were increasing in number.  In his view, the other ministries were offering a more “black and white” interpretation of the world, and the Bible, while Methodists (and ELCA, and others…) were allowing for the fact that there are “greys:” that black and white weren’t the only options.  The people we were trying to provide a service for weren’t interested in The Middle: they chose their extremes, likely because they wanted to be told what to think  The Middle, to them, was a scary place to be, a place where you may have to question things, have to think about the world, and have to make decisions.  Picking an extreme, there’s a clear-cut answer: you accept it and move on.

On a political spectrum, I technically fall center-left.  I’m a Moderate, by most interpretations.  But my thoughts on a variety of subjects, to some, would paint me as an ultra-leftist (because “The Middle” has been pulled more and more toward the Conservative side of the spectrum, but that’s another issue altogether…).

You can position yourself in the middle of an argument and still have strong feelings about it.  It’s possible.  And I try to do it all the time.

“I was in the prison, and you visited me…”

Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I attended church alone.  We had a guest pastor in church, as our regular pastor was out of town.  Her name was Pastor Arnette Pint, and she was the first Associate Pastor for Shueyville UMC back in the late-90s.  Since that time, she has gone on to a few positions, but her most recent one is serving a congregation called Women at the Well, that she started at the Mitchellville, IA Women’s Correctional Facility, so she had some very interesting perspectives.

Pastor Arnette described a variety of statistics and anecdotal stories to help illustrate what she does and why it’s important.  First, she told us that this is a relatively new concept, having a church within a prison.  This is different than having churches visit prisons, as you end up getting a variety of groups coming through and not staying – no sense of permanence.  The United Methodist Church in Iowa felt the need to appoint a pastor specifically to this prison, as the system apparently works well in other states where it’s been implemented.  Pastor Arnette relayed a story of the pastor (whose name I can’t find) that started this movement and, effectively, “wrote the book” on doing this sort of thing.  He had been ministering to the men of a prison in South Dakota and he got the sense that they wanted an actual, regular, church service.  Something permanent.  Something they could depend on.  After he started a weekly service, the numbers of attendees grew, and their outlooks after prison improved.

The part of the story that hit me was that, supposedly, one inmate thanked him for starting the service, lamenting the endless parade of churches and groups coming through to preach to them.  The inmate said “We was tired of gettin’ saved.”  It was an interesting point to make, as these churches that were coming to the prison somehow felt as though, because they were prisoners, they must obviously not be Christians.  Because they were in prison, they obviously needed “saving.”

With this framework in mind, Pastor Arnette went through some statistics, saying that 60% of inmate in her prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness, though that number is surely higher.  Most of those diagnoses happened outside the prison system, as the ones that occur once you’re in the system can be difficult to interpret.  There are 600 women in the prison, while 30 years ago, in the same building, there were only 40-something women there.  It’s a crowded place, and there’s one psychologist to manage all of them.  They communicate over the internet with a psychiatrist in order to get any medications approved.  Pastor Arnette also said that, while the statistics aren’t solid on this, she thinks it’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of these women that have been abused in some fashion during their lives, and the majority of them have struggled with addiction at some time.  For many of them, addiction is the reason they are in prison at all.  She said that, while they have counselors at the prison to help the psychologist in their day-to-day routine, these counselors, more often than not, are prison guards that have ranked up high enough to get off the floor.

The United Methodist Church in Iowa also started a program to help provide clothing for women that are leaving prison.  Apparently, the State of Iowa doesn’t provide you with a change of clothes for your bus ride home, so there are women riding from Des Moines to all points of the State in their prison uniform.  Hardly the “right foot” to get started on.  So, the Methodist Church started collecting clothes from women across the state, asking them to donate their lightly-used clothes so that these women have something to start fresh with.  The church provides a set of casual clothes, as well as a set of clothes nice enough for “that first job interview.”  Certainly a nice gesture.

One of her larger points was with regards to the cost of building and operating prisons.  She pointed out that almost $180 million has been approved by the State of Iowa to help refurbish this current prison, as well as build another prison in the state (and that’s just to build, not to operate).  That’s $180+ million to help deal with all these women that have been coming in (remember, 40 women increased to 600 in this one building over 30 years, largely due to influx of methamphetamine and harsher drug laws).  She suggested that, maybe, that $180+ million would have been better spent on helping these women before they got into prison, by providing greater access to abuse and addiction counselors, or to even see a mental health professional.

At a time when state funding for mental health is declining drastically, our spending on new prison facilities is increasing.  “How does this make sense,” she asks.

The last point I’ll leave with you are some interesting statistics on recidivism (as in, the likelihood someone within the prison will come back to the prison one or more times).  The rate in Iowa is 60%, which is comparable to other states.  According to her, in studies that have looked into programs like hers, with churches that are actually based within a prison, the recidivism rate drops to 15% for those individuals.  If those individuals leave the prison and find a church home (as in, one they attend regularly, as opposed to “just visiting”), the rate drops to 2%.

It was an excellent sermon, and an eye-opening testament to what goes on in the prison system.  Thankfully, my family isn’t known for their prison stints, so I can’t say I have any experience with what it’s like to “go through the system.”  I hope I never do, but if anyone I know has to go through it, I hope they have someone like Pastor Arnette and a program like hers to help them see it through.


I have been slowly catching up on podcasts from late last year now that I’m back at work.  I was listening to one yesterday from NPR’s On Point discussing the Wikileaks scandal, but moreover, the world that we now inhabit with regards to leaks, the internet, and overall availability of information.

Toward the end of the segment, the host, Tom Ashbrook, was talking to the former Director of Intelligence, John Negroponte.  He asked Negroponte how we, the United States, would/could deal with a leak like this.  Negroponte answered that they would do their best to prevent it from happening in the first place, placing greater restrictions on the individuals that can access certain information, and then also help re-classify information that should be classified versus that which really doesn’t need to be.  Ashbrook kept pressing him on the matter, asking: “What would you do in the event of a leak?  How would you stop it?”  Negroponte kept going back to “stop it at the source.”  It was getting really annoying to keep hearing the same question over and over, when I kept repeating the answer in my head as often as Ashbrook could ask.

The correct answer?

You do nothing.

There is nothing you can do.  Once the Internet has your information, you’re done.  It’s out there and you can’t stop it.  You can shut down a server or two, but the information propagates to such a degree that you can never fully eradicate any of it.

As happens frequently, this exchange got me thinking about generational differences and their views on the Internet as a whole, specifically to what degree each generation seems to embrace the sharing of information.  [Note: I have talked about this before…]  For those of us that grew up in parallel with the Internet (i.e. it was growing as we were growing), I think the transition was easy.  We learned to live together, gradually sharing some bits of information and withholding others.  We were using the Internet before Google even existed, when all you could do is use Yahoo! to find a website that you had to manually file within their database.  There was no Facebook.  There was no YouTube.  Primarily we were takers of information rather than providers, at least until we became more comfortable contributing to this new ecosystem.

The generation(s) older than me have taken to the Internet at a slower pace (at least in terms of creating new information…), largely because they’re more cautious.  Quite a few folks from those generations are now using e-mail and Facebook, and consequently are now starting to rely on it to a greater degree than ever before.  You can still see the delay in overall adoption in things like smart phones though, where these people are just now starting to get into the mode where they think complete and total connectivity is a necessity.  This is likely because their children and grandchildren are also more accessible, so if they want to contact them, this is how they have to do it.

It’s the younger generation(s) that I’m more curious about.  These people are growing up in a world where the Internet “just exists,” much like air and gravity.  It’s a reality.  It’s something you live with and use.  I guess the difference goes back to information sharing, the older generation never really shared things and stayed more private, my generation gradually let certain things slip and get onto the Internet, and the younger generation never really learned the restraint that should be applied to certain things rather than others.  However, I imagine that these kids are much more attuned into “what should go on the Internet” and “what should not go on the Internet” than I give them credit for.  They’ve seen things happen to their friends when something gets posted that shouldn’t, likely causing them to think twice about their choices.

Personally, I’ve always held the view that whatever I post on the Internet is viewable by The World At Large.  Anything I post on Facebook (and there are quite a few politics-based links I post up there…my views are pretty clear…) can be seen by practically anyone.  Anything on this blog can be seen by absolutely anyone.  Any future job prospects that I have will likely go a quick Google search on my name and this blog will be the first thing that comes up.  They can go back almost 6 years and read all about me, my family and what I’ve been up to.  Am I proud of all of it?  Not necessarily, but I also don’t hide from it.  That information is representative of who I was and who I am today.  If you want a snapshot of Andy Linsenbardt and all he’s about, this is where to find it.  Freely available and open for all to see.

This is also how I view information in general.  Sure, we have an inclination to hide things, but more often than not, we’re trying to hide things that we’re embarrassed about.  I plan on teaching Meg and her siblings someday that the Internet is a very useful tool, but anything you post on it can be viewed at any time.  If you don’t want anyone to see a certain picture of you drinking while you’re underage, don’t put it online.  Someone will find it.  Even if you delete it, it’s saved on a server somewhere that someone can get.  Anything that could potentially embarrass you should stay far away from the Internet.  Really, though, you just shouldn’t actually do things that could potentially embarrass you someday, but that’s another matter…

No matter what generation you come from, “honesty is the best policy” still applies to you.  Everyone is entitled to secrets, but there are some things that may as well be out in the open, freely accessible, so that others know more about how and how to deal with you.  It ends up saving time in the “getting to know you” stage.  You think about better strategies when dealing with others when you know more about them.  Sure, you learn how to take advantage of them as well, but hopefully this kind of openness spreads the naivety pretty thin.

Which brings us back to the Wikileaks deal from last year.  A lot of people were concerned that this information could hurt America’s standing in the world, and hurt our relationships with other nations.  Information that the United States was hiding was perceived as something to be embarrassed about, even if, at first glance, that information was innocuous.  In the end, the complaint that this leak somehow disrupted the fabric of space-time and all is lost is moot: if you really didn’t want that information out, then you should have classified it differently.

However, the larger point is this: perhaps most of that information should have been out in the open anyway.  Much as reading this blog gives the reader some extra insight into me, perhaps a lot of that information provides extra insight into the world we inhabit and the cultures we interact with.

And I don’t see a problem with that.

This whole “War on Christmas” thing…

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

For some reason, this week marked the first time in 2010 that I heard mention of this year’s “War on Christmas,” first in church and then in the “Daily Show” clip embedded above.  At church this past Sunday, it was proclaimed twice (not by the pastor) that we should all remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and that we should all say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.”  In the clip above, Jon Stewart highlights Fox News’ personality Gretchen Carlson as going off on the city of Tulsa, OK for changing the name of their 70-year-old annual “Christmas Parade” to the “Holiday Parade”…back in 2009…

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the frustration.  Christmas is a holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth and, thus, is a Christian holiday.  And this Christian holiday has been hijacked by all these other groups, including the atheists that believe in Santa Claus, or the Jews and their Hanukkah celebration.  We should all stand up against this onslaught and proudly exclaim “Merry Christmas” to everyone, and help ensure that we get a “Merry Christmas” back instead of the more generic “Happy Holidays” (you know, ’cause there’s only one real holiday…so we can’t make it plural). <end sarcasm here>

As the last half of the video above suggests, this trend is hardly new.  If you watch many of the old classic Christmas movies, including “Rudolph,” “A Christmas Carol,” “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” etc., you won’t find much mention of Jesus.  Only “A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes to mind in mentioning it at all, with the iconic recitation of the Christmas story by Linus, but that still only lasts a few minutes compared with the rest of the plot line.  Why, exactly, these TV and radio personalities are so uppity about it in recent years is beyond me.  It’s been happening for decades.

What Carlsson, and many, many others, fail to understand is that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t actually born on December 25th, and that the date was (likely?) chosen by Rome because of other festivals occurring around the Winter Solstice; or the fact that Hanukkah predates Christmas by almost two centuries.  These people miss  the fact that the very idea of “Christmas” has become something more to the general population of the world.

A time of peace.  A time of giving and sharing.  A time of remembering and helping the less fortunate.  A time for friends and family.  A time to end hostilities between you and your neighbor.  A time to think back on those that have gone before you, and a time to watch new lives grow.

Whether or not you ascribe the holiday to Jesus, Santa, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or someone/something else: shirley these are tenets we can all agree on.

I’d be willing to bet that Jesus would rather you love and remember your neighbor, instead of getting caught up in saying “Merry Christmas.”  He’d want you to say something.  And mean it.