The Radical Middle

The Wall (12/11/11 -12/31/11)

Tuesday, 03 January 2012 08:37 AM Written by
(they gave the last full measure of devotion)

Sergeant Christopher L. Muniz.

Specialist Ronald H. Wildrick, Jr.

Private Jalfred D. Vaquerano.

Marine Samuel M. Griffith.

Petty Officer Stacy O. Johnson.

Specialist Mikayla A. Bragg.

Staff Sergeant Joseph J. Altmann.

Sergeant Noah M. Korte.

Specialist Kurt W. Kern.

Private 1st Class Justin M. Whitmire.

Specialist Pernell J. Herrera.

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Still in Season

Monday, 19 December 2011 08:16 AM Written by

(one from the next page archives)

A little more than five years ago, PG editor extraordinaire John Allison invited me to contribute a long-form essay to The Next Page, the fledgling Sunday Forum section he had just begun to nurture from nothing. After a couple of weeks of thinking, a week of writing, some typically incisive edits from John, and some wonderful artwork — one example of which appears below — from Stacy Innerst, the 1,900-word finished product appeared in print five years ago yesterday. Though it has a (reasonably) hopeful ending, it's still bad cop to the good cop of another Christmas essay I wrote and like to rerun every year. So we'll start with this one, and save the uplift for a little later in the week...

DECK THE HALLS WITH BOGUS SENTIMENT
[originally published December 2006]

ALMOST 20 YEARS AGO, in a bustling little gift shop Downtown, I found my all-time favorite Christmas card. On the front was a pastoral scene straight out of Currier & Ives: a snow-covered pine on a snow-covered hill, a rich blue sky behind, and a caption below that read, This is the Season of Peace and Love. On the inside, an eloquent inscription: But at 12:01 a.m. on December 26th, it's back to Screw You, Charlie.

I laughed. I bought it. I kept it. And I take it out every year on weeks like this, when bells are ringing and carolers are singing and shoppers are willing to run you through with a candy cane or a reindeer antler just to get a chance at a PlayStation 3. Because peace and love last only as long as stock on hand, and Charlie never gets a rain check.

nextcrossedfingersBut he does get a mailbox full of sincere best wishes for a warm and wonderful holiday season, a heaping pile of pious platitudes from almost everyone he loves and knows and hasn't seen in three years. He even gets one from someone who, two days earlier, would have eaten his feet for a TMX Elmo.

I used to think that card was funny. But now, living and loving and trying to survive in this golden age of American Insincerity — when war is peace and ignorance is strength and context is inconsequence and language is just another means to an inelegant end — I realize it was visionary.

In its own, humble, vulgar little way, it foretold an era when each new day brings a bounty of gifts and blessings not even worthy of the words in which they're wrapped.

THE MOST RELIABLE OF those gifts trickle down from the top, a president to whom language is either a syntactical minefield or a weapon of rhetorical destruction.

President Bush professes his sincerity like an adulterer professes his fidelity: loudly and fervently, to draw attention away from the lipstick on his collar. His manner of speaking, from an accent that comes and goes with the political wind to those self-styled, conflicting labels ("War President," "Compassionate Conservative") he dons to suit the occasion, is a monument to transparent insincerity. He rhapsodizes about the Culture of Life, solemnly vows never to destroy life in order to save life, but began a war that has so far claimed more than 2,900 American lives.

His predecessor, who elevated solipsism to performance art, may have been worse.

As president, Bill Clinton reduced the budget deficit but contributed mightily to the insincerity surplus, baptizing with infidelity an age when the country is free to doubt anything its chief executive says. He professed love for his wife while canoodling his intern, denied it with an untoward mix of outrage and duplicity, then tried to convince us that our understandings both of sexual relations and "is" were less sincere and sophisticated than his. He convinced us only that, just as a fish rots from the head, our discourse rots from the head of state.

The rot spreads also from news networks that promise to give us the world but barely give us the neighborhood. On the same day that Fox, CNN and MSNBC tripped over themselves to tell us one man's was body found in Oregon, the bodies of 13 men and women with no way home were shot in Al Anbar province and blown up in Kirkuk.

If you did not hear about them or their sad ends, it is no wonder. They had not partied with Paris Hilton. They just did their jobs and died, giving the last full measure of devotion for a cause they could not quite articulate and a country that could not quite bring itself, beyond some ribbon magnets and occasional letters to the editor, to pay full attention to their sacrifice.

But perhaps we get the government and the media we deserve. When we want to develop our intellectual and spiritual selves but consume a steady diet of fast-food news and junk-food entertainment, we lay waste our promise and our possibility.

When morals and ethics are relative, the language we use to communicate them, and indeed everything else, crumbles. Ideals fall apart. Sensibilities cannot hold. And hypocrisy, the bankrupt currency of the day, is loosed upon a world in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate insincerity.

I TRY TO COMBAT THIS
problem on the front lines of my Business Communication classes at Carnegie Mellon University.

I teach my students to know and respect their audience, to analyze their purpose and understand their situation, to bring fact and data and reason and rhetoric to the careful craft of their language. I implore them to be clear and open and honest in both their communication and their careers. And I try to convince them that what business and politics and every other industry or complex in the world could use a whole lot more of are men and women willing to speak from their hearts or souls or anywhere else that consultants and focus groups can not reach.

In a classroom full of budding professionals for whom success is power, power is money and money is often everything, my job is not easy.

It is even less so thanks to so many CEOs' profitable propensity for insincerity: drawing big salaries and benefits packages while cutting workers' benefits and blaming the economy; sending jobs and overseas to minimize service and maximize shareholder value; professing ties to their communities but, with the unanimous blessings of boards of directors, fleeing for bigger cities and paydays; fostering corporate cultures in which the bottom line is king, honesty and loyalty are the jokers.

We expect corporate insincerity in advertising. But we get it everywhere now that companies seem to think we're too numb to notice.

Brewing companies sell us cases of beer but implore us to drink responsibly. Drug companies shill prescription medicines like dime-store candies, hard-selling benefits but soft-pedaling side effects that could make us bleed or bloat at every orifice. Automated voices tell us again and again, while we're on hold for 20 minutes, that our call is important to them. Operators stick to the script and admit responsibility for nothing, assuring us in detached and dulcet tones that it's the computer's fault.

But we know better. We know that when we accept these things, it's no one's fault but our own.

The more I think about that, as I stand before my students and tell them they cannot succeed by doing what I see people doing and accepting every day, the more I feel like a sham. And the more I feel like it doesn't matter if we don't accept those things. Because we do them, too.

We want higher quality at lower prices, more services for fewer taxes. We expect fair property assessments, then fudge our appeals to get below-market value. We demand accountability from community leaders and politicians, but we cheat on taxes and slide through stop signs and sneak 12 items into express lanes. We bemoan overpaid athletes but watch their games and wear their jerseys and want their autographs.

We proclaim our spirituality, go to church, and pass judgment on everyone we meet. We want lives and jobs with meaning, but we fill our communication with a devil's dictionary of pervasive cant, idiomatic stock phrases that navigate conversations we'd rather not have anyway, so we can grab a latte or squeeze in a workout before going home to empty apartments.

Every day we indulge in this endless, enervating background noise of unblinking responses that pass for interpersonal connections. And so we hasten the decline of our lives and our language. We compromise the thought for the script, the argument for the sound bite, the warm elegance of sincerity for the cool insincerity of expedience.

We get what we want, and we are satisfied. Even as we are not fulfilled.

MY 12-YEAR-OLD
, as 12-year-olds are wont to do, has lately become obsessed with his appearance. With his clothes, his shoes, his hair. The dressings and trappings of his slowly shifting self. He is more concerned with how he looks than with what he does, less focused on who he is than how he may seem. Which is to say he is more concerned with looking cool than being cool. The distinction does not trouble him. He is content to be thought cool even as he suspects he is not.

This preference of perception over reality, attainment over excellence, art over matter, has always been an essential and thus forgivable part of being 12. But it is not, even as it has lately become, an essential and forgivable part of being a lawyer or professor or politician. And yet it is now the most recognizable feature of a culture that, suffering a disconnect between public and private, thought and action, desire and deed, freely trades genuine wishes for empty fulfillments.

The whole tendency of modern America is away from sincerity. We have not left it behind, but we have at least turned our backs upon it, looking instead to a land of seductive hungers and superficial efforts. The force compelling this tendency and spawning these examples you know all too well — it is the quest for gain, for advantage, for self-interest divorced from the notion of common good:

Increased sales and political capital. Higher ratings and revenues. Fame and fortune and the precious 12-year-old cool factor. The more likely we are to want something in return for what we say or do, the more likely we are to fudge, spin, massage, manipulate. And so to sell what is left of ourselves and our souls for the chance that, with one more speech or show or merger, one more hollow greeting or empty greeting card, we may gain love or money or power or prestige — and all without earning or deserving it.

Our insincerity, laid bare, looks like nothing more or less than our own selfishness.

We have become, in many ways, an insincere people in an increasingly fractured and disingenuous country. We rarely say what we mean, mean what we say or, except in our best and most intimate moments, trust in the power of what we truly believe. This seems especially sad for a country and a people borne not just of geographical opportunity, but political and philosophical integrity.

If Americans are no longer honest with themselves and our world, if we compromise our government and our culture, our lives and our legacies, merely for the light and transient causes of self-interest, then we have become more, and worse, than that against which we once rebelled. And this age of insincerity will march ever onward.

BUT IF THIS CENTURY, this season — and that sardonic Christmas card — can teach us anything, it is that we still have a lovely capacity for sense and sensitivity, for the kinds of honesty and sincerity that allowed a land of castoffs and yearning immigrants to summon so much peace and love and possibility before.

We had then, and surely we still have now, the faith and steely resolve to become that most true and righteous of places: a country where, no matter the day or the week or the year, no matter how far we may have strayed from our noble beginnings, if we learn from our mistakes and carry them with us in our good works, there is always hope for redemption.

And where, as long as we speak freely and honestly — and, yes, even critically — from our hearts and our minds and our still-yearning souls, there can always be a promise and a season of sincerity.

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Too Late

Tuesday, 13 December 2011 08:06 AM Written by

(and far too little)

Oh, yes. Good.

After months and months (and months) of faithfully parrotting, uncritically reporting, and occasionally cheerleading the Penguins' pretty pictures and absurd fantasies of development, now we come to Jesus and to Mario with the revelation that, well, all might not be as easy and rosy as it seems on the Civic Arena site. Now we think to question whether a hockey team that can't develop 13,000-square-feet of storefront space in sixteen months (plus two more years' lead time) will be able to develop 2.8 Lower Hill acres a year for ten years. Now we decide to take a closer look at Emperor Morehouse's (ahem) transformative new clothes.

There is, at least, some small consolation.

We can look forward to a front-page piece raising questions about Strip District development a few months after someone knocks down the Produce Terminal.

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The Wall (12/4/11 -12/10/11)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011 08:03 AM Written by

(they gave the last full measure of devotion)

Lance Corporal Christopher P.J. Levy.

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Right, But Still Wrong

Friday, 09 December 2011 10:08 AM Written by
(she's back. with more distorted stats.)

When the pages of the PG last inflicted the work of Heather Arnet upon us, the Chief Executive Officer of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania declared in a letter to the editor that Domestic abuse is the number two killer of women in this country. You will remember, of course, the ensuing fact-check, and the cold, hard reality that domestic abuse deaths do not even come close to cracking the top ten killers of women in this country. That women's domestic violence deaths average about 1,200 a year, while women's deaths from cancer (the real #2) average about 264,000 deaths a year. And that, barring some correction or retraction, the difference between those two numbers is more than sufficient to dismiss out-of-hand anything Ms. Arnet might ever utter again.

To the best of my knowledge, neither a correction nor a retraction followed. Which is as disappointing as it is unsurprising.

PoppycockCanWhat followed yesterday, however, was another appearance in the pages of the PG, this time in a reaching, rambling, utterly unfocused op-ed piece, co-authored by Suzanne Ehlers, on the importance of family planning. There is no claim in it nearly so untrue, nor nearly so offensive, as the number two killer claim. And yet, once again, Ms. Arnet manages to be on the right side of the issue while being on the wrong side of fact, reason, and accuracy.

This year, we saw two milestones reached. The world population hit 7 billion. And here in the United States, politicians brought a record number of attacks against women's reproductive health, both at home and internationally.

That sounds awfully ominous and dramatic, doesn't it? Of course, it also sounds awfully vague and nebulous. And dubious.

Who keeps those records? What was the old record? What's the new record? Just how many attacks were there this year? And what, exactly, constitutes an attack?

Would it have killed them to give us a number? I mean, if you know there were a record number, then you must have a number, right? Right?

I'm guessing they don't, and that record number of attacks is a new, minor-league variant of number two killer. Or perhaps they do have one, but it just doesn't sound all that impressive -- 17? 26? 53? -- so they decided to go with the far more sweeping and impressive record number.

Either way, it's incredible. And not in a good way.

An analysis by the Guttmacher Institute also revealed that 99 percent of American women, including Catholic and evangelical women, use or have used contraception.

The Guttmacher Institute didn't perform that analysis; it merely quotes it. The actual report was produced by an unbiased, much more reliable source: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics.

The report did, in fact, reveal that 99% of all women who ever had intercourse had ever used at least one contraceptive method in their lifetime. But unlike Ms. Arnet, the report does not single out -- which is to say, does not take a veiled little shot at -- Catholic and evangelical women. The words Catholic and evangelical, in fact, do not ever appear in the report.

What Ms. Arnet is doing there, I suspect -- besides just taking a cheap little shot -- is trying to suggest, or imply, or just kinda sorta maybe put out there, that even women who for religious reasons profess to be opposed to contraception have in fact used it. And I have no doubt that's true in some, or even many, cases. But it's almost certainly not true in all those cases. Especially when you consider that, for the purposes of that CDC study, withdrawal, periodic abstinence - calendar rhythm, and periodic abstinence - natural family planning were all counted as methods of contraception. And that 59% (or 31.3 million women) of the survey respondents had reported using withdrawal at least once. And that, to count for the survey and so for that big number, a woman only ever had to use contraception (including withdrawal or abstinence) once in her life.

And if the numbers really are that high, then how, exactly is there a big problem in the US? And how does that level of practice and familiarity jive with this…?

[W]e are far from a world where women get the reproductive health care they need. In the United States, nearly half of all pregnancies are still unintended.

I'm certainly not going to argue with the first sentence. I have long and often argued, including in this space earlier this year, for increased funding for, and improved access to, comprehensive sex education, information, contraception, and health care for both women and men. (Especially in the face of impractical ideologues who want to reduce the number of abortions but don't want to increase the use of, or access to, contraception.) But the second sentence, following hard upon the first, suggests a runaway problem of unintended pregnancies that can be directly linked to a lack of sufficient reproductive health care and education. And yet the numbers do not support the full weight of the suggestion.

43.9% of those unintended pregnancies cited their reason for not using contraception as Did not think [I] could get pregnant. In these cases -- about 21% of the total number of pregnancies -- you could certainly argue that a lack of reproductive health care and education was central to the problem.

14.1% Did not expect to have sex. 22.8% Didn't really mind if [they] got pregnant. 16.2% Worried about side effects of birth control. 7.3% had a partner who didn't want [her] to use birth control. 9.6% had a partner who didn't want to use birth control. That's a total of 70% of respondents whose reasons for not using contraception follow from personal choices that do not suggest a lack of education or of access. (The percentages add up to more than 100 because respondents could give more than one reason for not using contraception.)

Which means that, in the end, somewhere around 20% of all unintended pregnancies, according to the CDC survey, could be traced to insufficient reproductive health care and/or education. Though much less dramatic than 50%, that's still a powerful number, and one deserving of attention. In the same way that any number of domestic abuse deaths over one, much less over one thousand, is a powerful number worthy of attention and correction. But once again, Ms. Arnet -- intentionally? unintentionally? does it even matter? -- gooses the argument, distorts the numbers, and so sacrifices any claims to credibility she may have.

Which, after the number 2 killer debacle, was none. But still.

Meeting women's needs for these services would reduce unintended pregnancies and maternal deaths by two-thirds and cut newborn deaths in half.

Whether this claim is for the US or for the world is unclear. (I told you it was rambling and unfocused.) But even less clear, and more important, is the source (or sources) of these claims. From where do they come? How are they calculated? On what speculation, or extrapolation, are they based? There's no way to verify them, or even to judge them, without a reference.

I guess we're just supposed to trust Ms. Arnet. After all, it's not as if her numbers have ever been wrong before.

It is maddening enough to read unreasonable, hyperbolic, stacked-deck op-eds that support positions you know to be unfair or foolish or just plain wrong. But it is even more maddening to read unfocused, hyperbolic, stacked-deck op-eds that support positions you hold and support and believe to be right. Your heart wants it to be good, but your head knows that it's not. You should rally to it, but instead, you're alternately enraged by and embarrassed for it.

And so, sometimes, if only for your own minor piece of mind, you have to expose it. Like this.

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Oh, Nuts

Thursday, 08 December 2011 09:37 AM Written by

(cracked)

I'm not sure there's ever a good time to buy one of these. But I'm pretty sure that now is not a good time to sell them. Or buy them. Or even think about them. And yet there they were, on a shelf at eye-level, just inside the front door at Marshalls at the Waterworks last night... 

PennStateNut

Everyone else in the store seemed to be ignoring them. Which is either a good sign, or a sign that all of the other shoppers were Penn State administrators.
 

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Unfair-Weather Friends

Wednesday, 07 December 2011 08:32 AM Written by
(in the not-yet-winter of their discontent)

During the ten years I taught full-time at CMU, I saw more protests, pickets, and demonstrations at the corner of Forbes and Morewood than I could begin to count. But I could easily count, and can just as easily recount, the number I saw during inclement weather.

None.

ValleyForgeNot one. Ever. Not even a brave, lonely, solitary one that began in nice weather and then, driven by dedication to its cause and a principled defiance of the elements, lingered into bad weather. As soon as rain or snow or temperatures began to fall, they were gone -- vanished into the mist (or flakes, or chill) so fast, it were as if they had never been there at all.

I thought again of all those put-your-comfort-where-your-mouth-isn't protestors when I read Saturday's PG piece on Occupy Pittsburgh's preparations for winter. And especially when I read these paragraphs:

A few weeks ago, occupiers estimated that 50 to 60 people camped on Mellon Green on an average night. This week, they estimated the number at closer to 20 or 30. About a dozen people mulled around the camp at about 7 p.m. Friday.

As the weeks have passed and the temperatures have dropped, some protesters, including Mr. Reichbaum, have chosen to spend more nights in the warmth of their nearby homes.

Which led me to imagine the press coverage of another great encampment in US history:

As the weeks have passed and the temperatures have dropped, some soliders, including General Washington, have chosen to spend more nights in the warmth of their homes instead of staying in their Valley Forge tents.

A friend recently joked that if the Occupiers really want to occupy Pittsburgh, they should start by occupying their tents. And that was before the weather turned cold. And rainy. And otherwise commitment-testing.

Unless their winterization plans -- and their selfless dedication to principles greater than themselves and their Mercury readings -- soon accelerate, by the time the first real blanket of snow falls, and the first extended cold snap kicks in, Occupy Pittsburgh will be more like Visit Pittsburgh.

And we already have an ineffectual one of those.

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The Wall (11/27/11 -12/3/11)

Tuesday, 06 December 2011 07:27 AM Written by
(they gave the last full measure of devotion)

Staff Sergeant Vincent J. Bell.

Specialist Thomas J. Mayberry.

Specialist Ryan M. Lumley.

Sergeant 1st Class Clark A. Corley Jr.

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