Sunday, December 26, 2010

Welcome to the "Inland Empire"

The "Inland Empire" is a vast stretch of land east of Los Angeles County inhabited mostly by cacti and Republicans, characterized over the years by brazen political corruption (the most recent former San Bernardino County assessor used the office as a political headquarters when he wasn't high on meth or participating in rehab) and the intellectual analysis of issues on a level of sophistication that would make any fifth grader proud.

The "West End" of this region -- roughly from the cities of Montclair on the west to San Bernardino on the east -- is served by a daily newspaper called the "Inland Valley Daily Bulletin," which is frequently used by local politicians as a convenient and apparently willing mouthpiece.

Thus, about two weeks after he was sworn in as the representative of the 63rd district to the California State Assembly, Republican Mike Morrell railed in a "Point of View" column (12/16/10) against increased taxes, "out-of-control spending, and looking to big government for solutions" (complete with sentence fragments and plural pronouns matched to singular antecedents). He claimed that "the people" always spend their money more wisely than government; that in the alleged dichotomy between people keeping their money or sending it to Sacramento, "it is our freedom that's at stake"; and that no less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson would certainly have agreed with him.

I would never argue that government is perfect. However, Mr. Morrell's "analysis" fails to mention even the most basic of services that state government is supposed to provide to its citizens -- including such things as public education and prisons (where the aforementioned former County assessor, along with a recently convicted former City Councilman from Rancho Cucamonga, will likely take up residence). One could read his article in vain for any reference whatsoever to any vital service for which any branch of government should accept responsibility. At least, then, he might (if he valued it) claim intellectual consistency; if he believes governments have no legitimate functions, then of course they have no need for any tax dollars. Of course, in order to do so, he would have to ignore the fact that that his alleged hero (other than Ronald Reagan, whom he cited repeatedly in a campaign event I attended) actually described several legitimate functions of government in his acclaimed Preamble to the Constitution.

The day after Morrell's diatribe against taxes and big government, another representative to the State Assembly, 60th District representative Curt Hagman, used an op-ed column (once again riddled with grammatical errors) in the "Daily Bulletin," to defend the e-mail he sent to constituents inviting them to a "Christmas Open House." Apparently he was upset by the fact that some of the residents in his district pointed out to him that he was using government money to pay for an event that was given an explicit religious label. In defending his action, he dug the hole even deeper: "The purpose of my Christmas party was to give people an opportunity to share their views with me on state issues in a casual setting."

I've been to events of this kind, and to the best of my knowledge, very little exchange of views takes place. People network with their friends, eat and drink (presumably at the expense of the government, which, remember, has no legitimate functions), and return to their offices the next bragging that they met an important public official (probably for about ten seconds). But even supposing that the event served as a venue for the casual exchange of views, does the Assemblyman only want the views of Christians?

Earlier this week -- I kid you not!! -- a letter to the editor appeared in said newspaper in response to this controversy, criticizing automobile companies for running a plethora of TV ads for their products in end-of-the-year sales campaigns (which they certainly did!) but failing to mention Christmas in their ads!

I strongly support the right of U.S. citizens to celebrate the religion of their choice (or no religion at all). But would it be too much to ask that they at least recognize the existence of a secular society apart from religion? Secularists are not a threat, as they are apparently perceived. The larger threat to American society is the failure of so many to see that our culture is diverse and can be "unbundled" (religion from non-sectarianism) without the slightest danger to either.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Evolution Continues

As I was discussing the state of the world with one of my liberal friends the other day, a scary thought occurred to me, namely, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the human species as it presently exists.

We all know -- well, those of us who accept evolution know -- that species typically become extinct as a result of failure to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Homo sapiens may be the first species not only to have caused its own destruction but to have had the power to see it coming -- and failed to heed the warning signs.

Of course, climate change is the most dramatic evidence of this trend. And while we will probably adapt to increments of ten, perhaps twenty degrees around the world, despite the enormous disruption to the food supply and the global economic and political systems, will the species survive changes of fifty or one hundred degrees? Who is to say this catastrophic scenario will not occur, as we continue to burn coal and oil to maintain the status quo, knowing all the while that doing so will eventually destroy the status quo?

Human beings like to think of themselves as members of the smartest species that ever roamed the earth. If this is true, it doesn't speak well of the other species. At least in the United States, we are currently witnessing a full-scale attack on logical debate, critical thinking, acceptance of facts as the raw material from which decisions should be made, and the values set forth in the Constitution but constantly ignored by the very people who claim to cherish that document. Hypocrisy runs rampant and apparently undiagnosed among those whose left brains do not communicate with their right brains; how else to explain the simultaneous drumbeat for tax cuts for the rich AND deficit reduction? "General welfare" is derided as "big government" by those who fail to see the relationship between greed on the part of those who already have enough and poverty on the part of those who have never had enough.

No, if intelligence is a virtue and a prerequisite for survival of the species over the next thousand years or so, I'm not very optimistic.

Nobody reading these words will be alive to see the demise of the human race. The process is far too gradual. But we are heading down the path toward our eventual destruction unless the wise somehow wrest power from the wealthy. I fear, however, that the tipping point has already been passed. Our institutions themselves, for the most part, exist to protect the status quo (or worse). When, in history, did the ruling class voluntarily give up power and accede to the notion that common people also deserve a break? When, except for a few years in the late 1700s, did Americans ever think the future was just as important as the present?

Contrarians could legitimately argue that the United States is an anomaly, that in fact most developed countries (Denmark, England, Canada, Sweden -- you know the list) are much further along the path to permanent civilization. While this is true (take the general availability of health care as just one of many possible examples), the United States, mostly by virtue of its geographic size, its population, and its natural resources, unfortunately has a disproportionate influence on the rest of the world. If you want proof, stay tuned to see whether "the greatest deliberative body in the world," aka the United States Senate, approves a treaty that will reduce the global nuclear arsenal and make the world a safer place -- or whether it will be held hostage to the politics of destruction made possible by the 40-vote filibuster and a few opinionated reactionaries.

I just hope that homo sapiens II, which will invariably come along in another couple of million years, will be more successful than homo sapiens I.