Sign of the times

[Original post had a photo of a truck, with a sign that said “Must sell, medical bills.”]

I don’t know why this bothers me so much. Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time at my day job researching the health insurance/Medicare/Medicaid situation. I have a lot of sympathy for the doctors, many of whom are decent, hardworking people who not only deal with the pressure of being responsible for the lives of others, but have hundreds of constantly shifting government regulations to sort through…or else. I also have a lot of sympathy for the patients, many of whom are decent, hardworking people who deserve something better than having to sell their trucks to stay healthy. I’m not claiming to have any of the answers, but maybe someday the right to health without going bankrupt will join life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as something fundamental to our societal belief system. Until then, good luck, whoever you are. I hope you find the $6k you need.

A NORAD Christmas

Christmas is a time of good cheer. It’s a time of family gathering around the fireplace, children laughing and opening presents, sugar cookies, egg nog, sugar plums–you know the drill. It’s also the time to check the NORAD Santa web site.

That’s what I found myself doing the other day. There’s something strangely intriguing about the fact that all these defense department types buried under Cheyenne Mountain have taken the time to put together a whimsical web site dedicated to St. Nick. They have “Santacam” movies of the sleigh soaring past landmarks like the Taj Mahal, and satellite tracks of him moving across the continents at high speed. My favorite are the videos of stiff military brass saying things like “This is Major General Thomas Spudburn of NORAD. We are happy to report that Santa Claus is on schedule to reach our British ally in one hour. We’re looking forward to seeing him enter US airspace at around midnight Eastern Standard Time, and we’d like to remind him to stay on his planned flight path and not try anything funny. Merry Christmas.”

I need to mention that I understand the church/state issue here: Santa Claus, though peripheral in concept and diluted by time, still has Christian origin. I suppose the ACLU will move to shut down the NORAD Santa site in a few years, and I’ll end up supporting them in principle. It really isn’t ethical to have the US (or Canada, for that matter, as NORAD is a joint venture) backing one religion over another.

Still, I enjoy the site, and was interested enough to want to share it with my step-son. At age 12, he knows the truth about Santa, but we like to maintain the tradition of hanging stockings and “finding” presents on Christmas morning. In that spirit, I sought him out at his computer on Christmas eve to show him the NORAD Santa web site.

Which brings me to my problem…

Of late, my primary computer of choice has been a Macintosh, and that is what I had been using to view the Santa site. My step-son has a computer which runs Windows. When I used his computer to go to the same site, we got a pop-up warning that software on the web site was attempting to access the Windows registry and change some of its settings. This disturbed me.

I’m not going to try to examine the reasons for receiving the warning on one computer and not the other. I suspect it has to do either with the fact that Windows is far more common than Mac and therefore the more obvious choice to hack, or that all the security stuff we installed on my step-son’s computer finally did something other than slow it down. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that our government (or maybe Canada’s, but let’s face it, which is the more obvious suspect?) put something on a children’s web site to alter computers.

In the past, I would have assumed that the attempted modification was most likely benign, probably having something to do with making the site work its magic more smoothly. However, given the way the USA has been behaving since 9/11: at least one American citizen being held without charge; domestic wiretaps that are (let’s be kind) borderline illegal; and rumors of torture franchises being set up around the world, I no longer have the trust in my government that was instilled in me as a child. When the warning message popped up on that computer, my gut reaction was fear. Whoa. Shut it off. Get out of there. The fun little Santa Claus web site had hidden teeth, and they were biting at my step-son.

It’s perfectly possible–maybe even likely–that there is nothing sinister going on. The pop-up warning might have been telling us something we didn’t need to know, and I ended up being overly cautious. I don’t know. What I do know is that, for a moment, I trusted my own government less than just about anyone I could think of.

What kind of a country am I living in, anyway?

Energy hogs are wrong kind of tough

The Ad Council brought us a new ad campaign the other day: the Energy Hog. It appears that energy is being wasted and President Bush has finally decided enough is enough. Decisive action needed to be taken, so the Ad Council, having done a fine job in the past with Smokey the Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog, unveiled a new character for the darker side of the twenty-first century. Actually, they’ve outdone themselves and given us not one, but eight new characters.

Unlike the friendly bear and crime dog, this new bunch does not coax our inner saint into preventing us from wrecking the world around us. These guys mean business–dressed in black leather, with punk hairdos, shades, facial hair, and other anti-social anomalies. They maraud and waste energy, taking long showers and getting in your way as you innocently try to lay down some attic blanket.

Now, I’m not planning on taking a poke at the Energy Hogs or the fine people who created them. There are plenty of others standing in line to do that. Truth be told, you’ve got to like any ad campaign that comes complete with a web site where kids can learn about the importance of window caulk. I probably didn’t learn the truth about window caulk until I was fourteen years old, and I had to pick it up on the streets.

My problem with the Energy Hogs is that, unlike the older characters I mentioned, these guys are negative stereotypes, presented in a negative way. Smokey wore a ranger hat and taught us how to not burn down trees. That was inspirational for kids in the 1960s, but appealing to the good angels sitting on our shoulders is far too twentieth century for the kids of today. The Energy Hogs come at us like a street gang, which the Ad Council obviously means to be scary, but what they fail to grasp is that kids today find that lifestyle alluring.

I’m not trying to say that the average kid living in the suburbs has a desire to deal drugs and spray innocent moms and children with gunfire. At least, I hope not. Similarly, the average kid growing up in the inner city, where gangs are a part of the environment, is probably more worried about avoiding them than emulating them. That’s not the point. Kids love to rebel–a fact of life which is a lot older than anyone reading this. If “gangsta” rappers and video games like Grand Theft Auto have demonstrated anything in the last few years, it’s that the grab-what-you-can, give-nothin’-back attitude is something that modern kids find attractive, even if it’s a little scary.

With that in mind, I would like to propose the following change to the Energy Hogs: Turn them into the good guys. Instead of frightening young children with their wasteful ways, they should be beating the living tar out of people who leave the TV on for their pets. Instead of peering into un-caulked windows, they should be shattering them and stealing DVD players. The Hogs’ leader, the Boss, who looks kind of like the biker love-child of Dick Cheney and Miss Piggy, already has the sort of scary charisma that could get children to turn in their no-good, non-recycling parents to the Department of Energy or SWAT or whoever handles such things.

In fact, I’d take the whole campaign one step further. Instead of the Energy Hogs being characters in a game on a web site, let’s make them real. We can solve unemployment and save the environment at the same time. I envision a day when reformed gang members, dressed as giant pigs, stand at every street corner, waiting for someone to drive by in a Hummer. First offense, they surround the thing and rip out its battery cables. Second offense, they brand an Energy Star logo to the driver’s forehead. In the unlikely event that the person driving the Hummer actually needs it for something other than ferrying groceries, we’ll grant dispensation if the vehicle has mud anywhere on it.

Now that’s a conservation program I can support.

War Notes, part 1

Saddam Hussein had it coming.

There’s no mistake about that. He’s had it coming since he decided to invade Kuwait, maybe even before. It’s hard to say. Before Kuwait, we never really heard much about the guy.

I’ll go on record here and tell you that I was against Operation Desert Storm, as we called it back then. Now we call it the Persian Gulf War, or just the Gulf War, but I suppose we’ll have to come up with a new name, like GW1. Before that, it was Operation Desert Shield, but I digress. Desert Shield consisted of blockades and embargoes and sanctions that were supposed to spank Saddam Hussein for being a bad neighbor. It was my opinion at the time that all we needed to do was wait him out. His government would collapse and the Kuwaiti flag would fly again, with the additional bonus of minimal loss of life on either side. We’ll never know if I was right.

The flip side to my opinion was that if we went in, we had to go all the way. No stopping at the border with a slap on the wrist. Saddam was a troublemaker and if we committed to military action we had to take him out or we’d regret it later.

Well, it’s later, and here we are again. When the fighting started in 1991, there was a rush of adrenalin all around. It was like the cavalry coming over the hill. We were the good guys (and gals), taking on the evil Iraqis in the black hats. Riding in the name of freedom for all the oppressed, it was a scene straight out of a John Wayne movie. Even those of us who were against the war could feel a surge of pride as our proud Patriot missiles fought off the vile Scuds.

Now, I’m not so naive as to think that the liberation of Kuwait was done for purely altruistic reasons. There have been plenty of hot spots in the world that we did very little about — places that weren’t floating on an ocean of oil — but it felt good to be doing the right thing, no matter what other factors may have been involved.

This time, it doesn’t feel good at all.

This time, our army is wearing black hats.

We’re finally going in, doing what perhaps we should have done 12 years ago, but it isn’t the same. For one thing, as evil dictatorships go, Hussein’s has been relatively quiet for the last decade. Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that he has violated the UN sanctions. I’m sure he sprinkles anthrax in his coffee and brushes his teeth with chemical weapons. But he hasn’t invaded anyone lately. He hasn’t even lobbed any missiles into the Sea of Japan. If you start to think I find him sympathetic, please reread the first line of this essay.

But it does make me wonder why we’re invading Iraq. Because that’s what this is — an invasion. I know the president was on TV calling it a “disarmament,” but invasion is the proper word. We’re disarming Iraq by moving thousands of soldiers and a large percentage of our military hardware into it. On the way, we’re hoping to topple the government and replace it with one more friendly to us. For security reasons.

I know, terrorism is the real reason behind this. More precisely, the fear of terrorism. It seems to be the reason we do everything these days. The theory is that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. The terrorists, Al-Qaeda in particular, want weapons of mass destruction. They both hate us, so it’s logical to assume that Hussein will give his weapons to them for use on us.

Sounds good, but experts on fundamentalist Islam like to point out that if there’s a runner-up to the United States on Al-Qaeda’s “most-despised” list, it’s secular leaders of Muslim countries like Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, Hussein isn’t likely to give his precious weapons away. He’d much rather save them for use on his neighbors or those pesky Kurds.

So, it comes down to this. I have no idea why invading Iraq suddenly became such a priority. Well, I have my opinions, but it doesn’t really matter any more any way. For better or worse, the invasion has begun, and it will just have to play itself out.

The point is, history shows us that it takes years to figure out all the ramifications of complex events like this. Who would have thought that the CIA encouraging Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan during the eighties would ever spin out of control? You remember Afghanistan, don’t you? The Soviet Union invaded it. For security reasons.

You have our attention…

77-11-175-93

nyc

Grade school in the early ’70s. My walk-home routine often consisted of watching over my shoulder for bullies. They’d usually follow you, so you knew they were coming. Half of your fear (and their fun) was just waiting for the assault. Rarely on the school grounds, of course, unless they were so mad about something that they couldn’t hold back. The usual method was to trail you by forty or fifty feet until you were out of sight of teachers and patrol kids, then come up behind you with the attack of the day, sometimes pushing and name calling, often spitting or tossing your books. You knew they were coming, but you couldn’t run. Running would just get their attention if they weren’t already out to get you, and for some reason bullies were always good runners. Perhaps being unencumbered by schoolbooks had something to do with it. Anyway, even if you managed to get away, you’d just end up being labled as a coward or worse.

It was fifth grade or so before I had my first successful interaction with a bully. “You’re dead after school” was the usual youthful exaggeration, and I was informed of this fact sometime about halfway through the school day. Fed up with living in fear, and this being one of the lesser bullies, I mustered the courage to look him in the eyes. “Okay, you can fight me, and we both know you’ll probably win,” I said, “but I have to be honest, I’m not going to stand there and let you pound on me. I’ll fight you back as best I can.” I left the school that day through my usual door at my usual time. I can’t lie–I was scared, but I was ready. I looked for him in the schoolyard. I looked for him all the way home. I never saw him. He never bothered me again, and I had finally learned something at school that didn’t involve math or geography.

I thought about these things yesterday. Someone, still unidentified, decided to strike fear into the hearts and guts of Americans by destroying some airplanes and buildings with people in them. No one has taken credit for this act, and they probably won’t. That’s just perfect, and so typical of a bully. On a macrocosmic scale, it’s still the same old schoolyard attitude–cowardice cloaked in violence. Somewhere in the world, a brain, if you can call it that, conceived of this operation. Now it hides, smugly believing it has achieved whatever unfathomable goals it set. In reality, it struck out blindly and wildly, convincing someone else to do the actual work, die the actual death.

No doubt, upset with it’s lot in life, it chose this as some obscene way to rectify the things it finds wrong on this planet. I have news for it: The people you killed yesterday had no more thought for you or your lot in life than a forest does for a leaf. Moreover, they weren’t the source of your problems. Almost all of them were regular schmoes like me who go to work in the morning and return home in the evening to the family and the mortgage payment. Now they’re gone, and you can’t even scrape together the courage to tell us why.

Perhaps if you had tried to stand up and speak out for yourself and your cause, you might have achieved justice or whatever it is you’re looking for. Americans are a caring people–we proved that yesterday–and we just might have paid attention to you. That’s the beauty of a free society. We can listen even if our leaders don’t.

Instead, we stand here now in the schoolyard of the world. You, the bully, successfully blindsided us. Congratulations. We didn’t see it coming and we weren’t ready. You gave us your best shot and hit us with an assault that was obviously years in the planning and of epic proportions.

We took the punch. We’re still standing. This isn’t over.