Monday, January 28, 2013

Credulous Nation

To paraphrase something which Sen. Moynihan is credited with saying, " All of us are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts." This past week I got embroiled in a fruitless discussion of the attack in Benghazi. Some of those involved cited "facts" that I could not verify. The one I came closest to tracking down was the assertion that a General in Stuttgart had been arrested when he tried to send troops to Benghazi. After a little research I discovered that Gen. Carter Ham, who commanded the Africa Command, which is headquartered in Stuttgart, was in Washington on the day of the attack and was replaced as head of Africa Command a month later. Was his being replaced prompted by his disagreeing with the Secretary of Defense's decisions about responding to the attack? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was.

When I had the temerity to suggest that the statement about an arrest might not be true, my comment was dismissed as a defense of he President's lies by one of those in the discussion. It appears that the convictions of some folks that the President is lying are immune from facts. Of course we can make light of conspiracy theories - as the TV show "Bones" did when one of its character said that Monica Lewinsky was a KGB trained sex agent - but conspiracy theories and other totally unfounded statements ave a way of creeping into discussions of public policy. Remember the Obamacare "death panels"? Having to answer that lie over and over again made the discussion of the actual provisions in the bill a bit more difficult.

The story of a comment of Benjamin Franklin's at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 may be apocryphal, but it does express an important truth about this country. Asked, "What we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?" Franklin responded, " A Republic, if you can keep it." As President Shepherd says at the end of "An American President" democracy is hard work. Part of that hard work, one thing we need to do to keep the Republic left to us is to pay attention to facts. Political decisions based upon rumor will not serve us well.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Society's Child

A few weeks ago I heard the song "Jesse" on the radio. I didn't recognize the artist, but I did somehow know that the song had been written by Janis Ian. That set me on a search for a number of things, including a clip of her performance of her first hit, "Society's Child" on a program hosted by Leonard Bernstein when she was 13 or 14. I also listened several times to that song and heard something I don't recall hearing before.

The song was about interracial dating, and in the chorus Ian sang "I can't see you anymore." But at the end of the song the refrain changed to "I don't want to see you anymore." Ian expressed poignantly the pain that we impose on society's children when we burden them with our prejudices, when we force them to conform to society's warped norms. The apostle Paul knew about that pressure when he encouraged the members of the Church in Rome: "Do not let the world press you into its mold." (Romans 12:2, the Philips translation)

What damage we do to our children when we load them down with our prejudices - about poor people, people of color, immigrants, people who are gay or lesbian or transgendered or bisexual. What friendships our children miss because they are forced to "stick to their own kind." Prejudice does not just hurt those whom we view as inferior. It hurts all of us as well.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Access to Information and Intellectual Property Rights

The furor following Aaron Swartz's suicide raised an interesting question for me: how to increase people's access to information without depriving people of rights to their intellectual property? There seems to be no argument about what Swartz did, but there is considerable discussion of whether what he did was wrong. Is it wrong to download journal articles without paying a fee? The defenders of Swartz's action talk about free access to information, but what about the right of authors and researchers to be compensated for their work? Is there any moral difference between downloading a journal article without paying and stealing a magazine?