Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lies... Part of this Balanced Breakfast

When I was a kid, I loved me some Cocoa Puffs.  I didn't get them that often, because my parents were not advocates of hyping me up on sugary cereals.  But I was never convinced that they had the right of it.  My Saturday mornings were laden with, between incidents of Wile E. Coyote blowing himself up (yet again) with a pair of Acme rocket-powered roller skates, an endless parade of commercials showing me how my beloved chocolatey puffs could be part of a balanced breakfast, so long as you surrounded it with piles of toast, juice, fruit, and milk.

If you're wondering why we Americans find it difficult to discern the truth anymore, maybe it's because we haven't heard much of it in a very long time.

As a marketer, I know that the key to getting people to respond is not through facts, but through emotion.  I can't tell you that eating your vegetables will promote a whole host of health benefits, even though it's true.  But if I show you images of a happy family eating a meaningful dinner together featuring a bowl of steaming green beans being passed around, now I've got you.  In fact, I can sell you something that you are factually skeptical about and make you willingly ignore those rational concerns if I package it right.  As humans, we are hard wired to prefer feeling good about something than being correct about something.

The applications of this tactic are literally everywhere in our life.  My time researching and writing on nutrition and fitness brought this home with a thud.  The fitness and nutrition industries are MASSIVE, multi-billion dollar enterprises, and the vast majority of what we are sold is of little or no actual value or benefit.  Vitamins, cleanses, fancy diet plans, diet books, the Thigh Master?  And the labeling and packaging practices of food manufacturers are so cleverly crafted, we actually think Nutella is "crafted from wholesome ingredients".  Yet, the country is fatter and sicker than ever before.  We ignore the obvious lack of results and opt instead for the validation of a label.

The effect of this endless barrage of insincerity on our brain is alarming.  It's bad enough that we are conditioned over our lifetime to believe things that we would otherwise rationally dispute.  In doing that - in rejecting that skeptical part of our mind - we have atrophied our ability to smell a fish story when we hear it.  Our entire perception of reality is therefore compromised.  We're basically mentally handicapped through conditioning.

And here's the thing:  political strategists have been following this practice for decades.  They know they don't need to (or even want to) tell you the truth about eating your vegetables.  They know they can get a lot more votes by striking an emotional chord, even if it is factually dubious. Campaigns pioneered micro-targeting and commercial marketers have taken their lead in using "Big Data" to refine and retarget their messages down to a segment of "you."  They no longer have to guess what will outrage or energize you; they KNOW.  And all they have to do is, quite literally, tell you just what you want to hear.  We know politicians lie.  We accept it.  And, we don't care.  That's surrendering what you know to be real in order to feel that emotional appeal.  And that should scare the crap out of you.

Aren't you tired of being lied to?  Aren't we all?  Red or Blue, left, right, or center, don't we deserve better?  Of course we do.  But we haven't demanded to be treated with respect by those who wish to represent us in government.  We haven't held ourselves accountable to rise above the "feel good" bumper stickers we are fed.  We keep buying Cocoa Puffs and calling it part of a balanced breakfast.

Expect more of your elected officials.  Reject the politics of emotion.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What you don't know about military veterans (part 2 of 2)

In part one, I raised the issue that the military and our veterans are equally misunderstood by conservatives and liberals alike (and maybe we could even be considered a marginalized group).  Here, I'd like to share some insights common to most veterans I know.

We don't know what to say when you thank us.
My fellow veterans and I talk about this a lot.  We are all thrilled that we have learned as a nation from the mistakes following the Vietnam era, but we're at a bit of a loss when a random stranger decides to thank one of us individually.

Our thought process goes a little like this:  Why are they thanking me?  They don't know what I did or didn't do.  They don't appear to have any way to relate what it meant to them or to me.  I know people who did so much more and sacrificed greater than I did.  There are people downrange right now that need your support; not me.  Your appreciation is misplaced.

After all that, we shrug and try to figure out whether re-thanking them or "you're welcome" is the more appropriate response.  We just don't know what you're looking for.

If I may make a suggestion: if you want to show your appreciation to a veteran, ask a few questions instead of poking us with an arbitrary "thank you."  Where did you serve?  Do you have friends still in the military?  What was it like for you?  What could we do around here?

We keep our politics somewhere south of our dog tags.
I sort of think the "veterans are all conservative hawks" narrative comes from the squad of retired officers who have sold out to a career of punditry on television.  These folks, by and large, come off as quacks to me.  They know how to serve up some movie-worthy imagery, but they're a cartoon.  They pander to what civilians expect to see when you watch a retired general.  For myself, I can't imagine actually serving under any of these blowhards.  It would be a nightmare!

As a member of the military, the uniform weighs very heavily on us.  Ask any veteran and they'll tell you that, in uniform, you represent the entirety of the US Armed Forces (or the entire country if you're overseas) as well as every person that ever wore the uniform before you or will in the future.  That's a pretty full load; there's not a lot of room for personal politics alongside all of that.  So we push it down.  We all have our points of view, but we are instruments of national policy, not practitioners.

We know how thin the veneer of "polite society" really is.
Anybody that has been to very troubled regions of the world will tell you: we're all about  three degrees of separation from "The Walking Dead."  A relatively brief interruption in the basic systems that keep our society flowing will turn people into the basest version of ourselves in a matter of days.

Starvation, dehumanization, genocide, all protracted for years and even generations on end.  These things cannot be unseen or unfelt.  And when we come back home (thank you for your service), the constant nattering of "first-world problems" from people who have never seen true suffering grates on us like nails on a chalkboard.

We deploy in support of our brothers and sisters; not the mission.
This isn't a politically partisan post, but a recent example sticks out for me, and stuck in my craw at the time.  When Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens was killed during a raid in Yemen, the White House came to its own defense, claiming "he believed in the mission."  It was a disgusting display and it was total bullshit.  Chief Owens believed in not letting others carry his load.  He believed that it was his turn to go into harm's way and he wasn't going to let anybody else take his place.

As I said before, politics and national policy aren't the job of a soldier.  Our job is to obey orders.  The reason we keep doing that job is the love and respect we have for our brothers and sisters on our left and right.  We may hate the mission; we may think it's completely hare-brained.  But we are going because our brothers and sisters will be there.  They're not going into that alone.  I've got their back, just like they have mine.  And I mean that literally.  The entire fabric of the military depends on this bond.

We have seen, first hand, the consequences of foreign policy decisions.
There's one fundamental truth about the presidency every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine understands:  the president decides who lives and dies.  Either through action or inaction, the president will either send troops into harm's way, or decide to keep the troops home, allowing others to continue to suffer in far-away places.  The decision to apply diplomacy, provide foreign aid, condemn in the United Nations, or just take an unscheduled trip to a hot spot will have a direct impact on events on the ground.  And nothing happens in isolation.  Dominoes fall and fates are sealed, one way or the other.

As I sit here, I have a hard time thinking of a completely "successful" foreign policy decision during my adult life.  And I was there on site for quite a few of them.  When I hear people rant for "obliterating ISIS" or "taking out so-and-so," my first thought is to cringe at the train wreck I see coming.  My second is to suggest that this patriotic individual should get right on that his-own-damn-self.

Governing, by and large, isn't about winning and losing.  Most times, it's about holding things together. the best you can.  Every now and then, you get a chance to make real progress.  But, in all of them, there is an element of life and death.  And I'd just as soon people not be so free with throwing mine in the fire for a passing fad of political football.

We really don't understand why you don't get it.
Once you've been exposed to the world through the experience of military service, there is no going back.  You simply can't put the blinders back on.  The world is simultaneously smaller and unimaginably huge.  It's both simpler and infinitely more complex.  We see a new sort of truth about things and how they work.  It's more pragmatic, more jaded.  It's both skeptical and optimistic.  Maybe we've traded our rose-colored glasses for camouflage ones, but the things people say (either about us or the things we've seen and experienced) never cease to amaze.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

What you don't know about military veterans (Part 1 of 2)

"Thank you for your service."

Conventional wisdom says conservatives are staunch backers and supporters of the military and veterans.  Liberals, not so much.  As a veteran and a liberal, I've got news for you. Neither side seriously considers or understands the issues, needs, or perspectives of those who served and continue to serve today.  And, to be honest, I'm kind of tired of the platitudes.

In the 60's, liberals were the original "Flower Children" opposing the Vietnam War.  Opponents of the war treated returning veterans shamefully afterward.  Three decades later, many Democrat officials opposed the invasion of Iraq.  Ironically, both of those actions have come to be viewed as historical mistakes, but that has done nothing to lessen the narrative that liberals are "doves" and "hippies" and therefore dislike the military as a matter of principle.

Even my fellow liberals are surprised when they learn that I have a long, multi-generational military background.  Sadly, this particular piece of conservative mythology has seeped across party lines to the point where it is almost universally accepted as true.  The truth is, red or blue, support for the military is more of a prop than a genuine, heartfelt belief.

There's a joke:
     "How many Vietnam Veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
     "I give up, how many?"
     "You weren't THERE, man!"

In those three lines, you can find a whole host of lessons about understanding the military culture.  If you're not sure you should laugh or why, there's a reason.  Let's call it "Civilian Privilege".

You may not think of veterans as a "Marginalized Group" and I can understand that.  Veterans, by and large, have enjoyed special access to services, support, and recognition that many groups have not.  Add to that the inherent strength that is associated with the US military, and it would be easy to dismiss the idea of veterans as a minority or class at all.  And that's sort of the problem.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 7% of the American populace living today ever served in the military.  The LGBT community is somewhere around 5-6%.  The African American community is around 12-13%, and the Hispanic community about 17%.  Statistically, that puts veterans in a sharp minority, comparable with other protected classes.

Did you know that the US military has been in virtually constant hostile action since OPERATION: DESERT STORM in 1991?  That's 26 years.  Entire careers have been spent deploying from conflict to conflict.  Were you aware that there are still over 8,000 US troops in Afghanistan today?  Most people aren't.  That's because, in modern America, nobody has to sacrifice to support ongoing war efforts overseas.  The shelves are full.  There's no rationing.  And news cycles just sort of blow through periodic spurts of coverage when things go sideways.  We've got very short attention spans.  You can turn off your television, close your front door, and forget entirely that there is a segment of the population that has spent two and a half decades in harm's way, and that nobody comes home unchanged from that.  That's the very definition of privilege.

Americans are absolutely shameless in brief, shallow, pre-fabricated displays of patriotism and support for veterans.  We stick a flag out on a holiday, or post a meme on Facebook and call it good.  It's exactly the same sort of co-opting we do during Black History Month.  We talk about Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King for a week and walk away feeling like that qualified as substantive support and understanding.  Nonsense, right?  But, when it comes to veterans, we don't have that same feeling in our guts - that feeling of knowing that we are doing ourselves, our history, and our posterity a disservice by relying on token gestures.

So, red or blue, left or right, when people wave their little plastic flags and say "support our troops," in my heart of hearts, I say the same thing: "You weren't THERE, man!"

In Part 2, I'll discuss common veteran perspectives and how we can do a better job of actually engaging them.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

How do we take big money out of politics? You just did.

The defeat of the American Healthcare Act (aka TrumpCare, RyanCare, or TRyanCare) was a win for people who don't want to see tens of thousands of people left out of a basic need of all citizens.  But it was more than that; it was the culmination of three months of concentrated grass roots engagement and activism by voters who, like me, just showed up.  And that's the bigger lesson in all of this.

Campaign finance is a mess.  Corporate and fringe political interests have held sway for far too long.  But in 2017, people have proved that no amount of money can outweigh genuine engagement on the part of the electorate.

Our message was clear.  Our efforts were focused.  Our determination was palpable.  It changed things.  And it didn't cost a dime.

The conversation around politics has changed since election day.  The ubiquitous "they" is no more.  We are talking about policy in the first person.  "How will this affect us?"  "Do we need this?"  "What can I do?"  There is no greater power in the American model than an informed and energized voting public.

This is just the first step.  A victory feels good.  But now the veil has been pulled back.  We see the bad actors, the gross incompetence, and the real interests that are driving our legislatures and national government into the ground.  There's a lot more work to do.  So, take a moment, look around, and savor the victory.  Then roll up your sleeves.  We've got more to do.  And we can't be bought.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Finding the Zebra Among the Stripes

The poor zebra is the perfect metaphor for where we are in America today.  One side looks at it and says "it's black with white stripes"  while the other says, "No! It's white with black stripes!"  Both are arguably true and neither one can be objectively disproven.  We are diametrically opposed!  There's just no middle ground.  

The part neither side seems to want to admit is that they are BOTH looking at the same zebra!  

And that's how it goes.  Whether it's an argument about civil rights, justice, school choice, healthcare, marriage equality, or women's reproductive rights, we are fixated on the stripes.  Nobody wants to talk about the zebra.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not a Red country with some Blue people.  Nor are we a Blue country with some Red people.  We are Americans, lumped together in this messy, chaotic grand experiment of liberty first envisioned almost a quarter millennium ago.  But we have been sold a lie.  Or, rather, two of them.  The red and blue stripes are an illusion.  They've been crafted by micro-targeting, big-data, big-money interests who only want their fringe version of America to ascend.  DON"T. LET. THEM!  It's time to recognize the zebra for what it is and stop arguing on behalf of people that just want to keep you in line.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Liberal America's "Entitlement Problem"

Go ahead and do a Google search for Liberals and Entitlements.  I'll wait....

Did you get it?  Not pretty, is it?  Apparently we liberals just LOVE to give away the store to all those lazy, fraudulent, and whiny people out there who just won't work for themselves.  Which, obviously, is why we liberals also LOVE taxes.  Okay, I fess up; you got me.  I just thrive on laziness, fraud, and taxes.

What a crock!  I mean, what an absolute, steaming pile of myth!

First of all, there's the word: Entitlements.  In conservative parlance, they take it to mean "free stuff" or, worse, "freeloading".  But an entitlement is, by definition, something you earned.  Social Security and Medicare are programs we all pay for.  7.6% of every single paycheck goes to pay for these programs for your entire working life.  When needed, basically, you withdraw against that balance.  I'm pretty sure every American feels like they are owed (or entitled, if you will) a part of those benefits when the time comes.

For the record, these programs alone comprise half of the federal budget.  And there isn't one politician out there willing to jump on the third rail of Social Security reform.  No other program, including Defense, comes close.

The conservative rant against so-called (but mis-named) entitlements seems to focus on a few specific programs:  unemployment, welfare, and food stamps (SNAP).  These are the punching bags of the "laziness narrative".  Conservative forces want you to think of a fat, lazy alcoholic sitting on his porch, eating Pringles and drinking a beer on your dime while you work your butt off.  This fictional sloth slaps on a phony back brace every time he waddles out to collect his next check and laughs all the way to the bank.  I'm sure there are a few of these characters out there, but that's not what most welfare recipients look like.

What's really interesting is those same interests that like to attack these low-income assistance programs are also the ones that are fighting tooth and nail to keep the minimum wage where it is.  If you want to look at assistance programs, wages HAVE to be a part of the conversation.

Here in Arizona, the living wage for a household of three where both parents work is about $52k per year.  And living wage ain't "living large".  That's enough for a basic apartment and a reliable used car that you both share (which is fun when you both work).  The MEDIAN wage in Arizona is $51k.  You're reading that right.  At least half of the people living here earn less than the minimum needed to sustain a basic normal lifestyle.  Quite a few make a LOT less.  And minimum wage (which we FINALLY passed a measure to increase) doesn't come close to cutting it.

What's you're point, Mike?
Just this:  If you're going to talk about limiting assistance programs, then you HAVE to talk about wages.  People work to support themselves and their families.  If you don't pay people enough to do that, then they are going to need help.  Period.  The math simply doesn't add up any other way.  And that is to say NOTHING of the need for people to save for retirement, their kids' education, and just everyday emergencies that hit us all.  46% of Americans can't absorb a $500 hit to their budget on any given month!  70% have less than $1,000 in the bank.

"There is one thing we are all entitled to: the simple dignity of a means to survive."

Free markets can't be "empathy free."  And individual responsibility can't be "sucks to be you."  We are more than a governmental system.  We are more than a capitalist system.  We are a society of citizens.  There is one thing we are all entitled to: the simple dignity of a means to survive.  It's time for the conservative think-tanks, Super-PACs, and bumper sticker factories to put up or shut up.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lessons from Moscow: Obliterating Terrorism

One of this president's top priorities and promises has been to "obliterate ISIS."  Since 9/11, the shadow of terrorist attacks from extreme Islamist elements has certainly loomed large over our nation.  But how do you kill an ideology?  Is it even possible?

One could argue that the reason we have not been successful in "obliterating" terrorism is that we haven't been aggressive enough in prosecuting the war.  Our foreign policy has certainly wavered under both of the previous administrations at different points.

Fortunately, we have other examples to learn from.  One big one is Russia's efforts to stamp out their own Islamist extremist group in Chechnya.

Now, nobody could accuse Russia of being reluctant to prosecute this war.  Over the course of the last 17 years (pre- 9/11), over 50,000 people have been killed on both sides, many of them civilians.  Exactly how many and on which sides varies based on who you ask, but all estimates are well north of 50,000.  That is a level of commitment that America hasn't come close to delivering in 45 years.  The Russians are serious.

So what have they gotten for their efforts (besides killing 50,000 people)?  Here's just a brief list of things:

  • Chechen fighters have become some of the most hardened mujahedin in the world
  • Fighters from other nations, including Afghanistan and Syria, have come in to fight alongside their brothers, bringing networks and knowledge with them (and taking them home again).
  • Chechen fighters have gone to Syria and Afghanistan during surge periods to shore up their ranks
  • Grozny, the capital city of the Chechen Republic, is essentially a pile of rubble
  • And, they're still fighting.  In fact, indications are, as the Syrian conflict takes a turn, many fighters are returning to Chechnya to fight another day
Long story short, a full-fledged aggressive military campaign has not successfully eliminated the threat from these extremist elements.  And that says a lot about how mujahedin operate around the world.  They are the ultimate opportunists, seeking (and sometimes cultivating) conflict in areas where they can lend their lives to the cause.  The conflicts don't normally start out with jihadis, but they wind up with them.  They form, scatter, and re-form wherever strife exists.  They come in like Robin Hood's band of Merry Men, distributing money and support, recruiting new fighters, and tipping the scales.  All the while, they promote the most extreme version (or perversion) of basically 14th century Islam.  

But these aren't the only examples.  Consider the revolution in Northern Ireland or the battle with the communist FARC in Colombia.  These conflicts, too, lasted for years upon years, and ultimately were unsuccessful, militarily speaking.  You simply can't kill an idea.  

Does that mean that there is no place for military force?  No, it doesn't.  Von Clausewitz said "war is diplomacy by other means."  He was a smart guy.  He realized that the ultimate end is always diplomatic, and that military force is applied for the purpose of making the alternative unacceptably costly.  But it starts and ends with the tools of State.  

An all-out war on ISIS will certainly kill a lot of those fighting today.  But it will also kill tens of thousands of civilians in its path.  And will certainly cement the idea for yet another generation that America is an enemy worth hating and worthy of jihad.  And, like past ones, this new generation will come from all corners of the earth to join the fight.  Fear-driven warfare is not the solution.  It is the recipe for an entirely new round of conflict that will consume the best years of our millennial generation.